Heroin has become so pervasive a drug that it now can be found nearly everywhere in Missouri, say local government officials including St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.
“The problem with this is when you say heroin, people think that’s an urban problem,” Ehlmann told St. Charles County Council members at its Feb. 8 meeting. “It’s a suburban problem, it’s a problem in little towns across the state. People need to be very, very conscious of what’s going on.”
Ehlmann briefed the council on the county’s efforts to stem the use of heroin, particularly among young people.
“I’m not exaggerating when I call it an epidemic,” Ehlmann said.
Earlier in the day, Ehlmann, along with officials from St. Louis and St. Louis County, participated in a news conference in St. Louis County held by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse to discuss area efforts to combat heroin use.
The news conference was in the wake of the council’s public service TV spot highlighting the heroin problem, which featured St. Louis County’s Lafayette High and aired during the Super Bowl television broadcast. Ehlmann played the spot at the council meeting after his remarks.
Like other area government jurisdictions, the county has been actively combating the heroin problem for several years. Since 2013, the St. Charles County Police Department alone has responded to 323 heroin-related calls, including 84 overdoses, Ehlmann said. The Missouri Department of Health said 39 people died of heroin-related overdoses in St. Charles County during 2014.
Ehlmann said last November the county police department was the first law enforcement agency in the area allow its officers to carry Narcan, an antidote that can block opiate drug overdoses. Narcan has already been used to save a life in the county, something that other police departments throughout the area are working on, but don’t have in place yet, he said.
The St. Charles County Drug Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional group that includes police departments throughout the county, initiated more than 700 investigations in 2015 and seized thousands of grams and units of illegal drugs, Ehlmann said. He said between 2013 and 2015, the task force made nearly 500 combined drug manufacturing and fugitive arrests.
Last summer, the county task force along with other area law enforcement agencies teamed with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to form the St. Louis Regional Heroin Initiative. In June, they rounded up 36 people arrested in a 36-hour period and charged with various heroin-related offenses. The arrests took 34,000 doses of heroin worth $500,000 out of circulation, Ehlmann said.
He added that the county’s prosecuting attorney’s office in 2014 and 2015 had the first three convictions of people charged with selling to someone who died from an overdose, which may be ahead of other parts of the region. The prosecuting attorney’s office has taken the position that anyone convicted of selling heroin in the county will do prison time, he said.
County police continue to have resource officers in local schools.
“It’s becoming more and more apparent that we start educating the youth at a very early age,” Ehlmann said. The prosecuting attorney’s office also helped establish CRUSH [Community Resources United to Stop Heroin] initiative.
CRUSH brought together schools, law enforcement, treatment providers, community leaders and health care organizations. A teen drug summit at the St. Charles Convention Center in November 2015 brought together more than 400 area sixth- through eighth-graders to discuss the dangers of heroin. The prosecuting attorney’s office also makes presentations to area high schools on the legal ramifications of use at area schools, Ehlmann said.
Closer to home, the county also is offering its employees free drug tests under its health insurance coverage if they suspect a spouse or their children may be using drugs, he said.
Ehlmann said he began to realize the impact of drugs about three years ago when he met with prosecutors and police. Methamphetamine addiction, a major threat a few years ago, while still serious, has taken a back seat to heroin because of its availability.
“Heroin is the big problem,” he said. “I didn’t find out how extensive it was until I became a circuit judge and you see all the lives ruined by drugs. The same thing is now happening to our children in the neighborhoods we have in St. Charles County.”