FARGO - Once a rare find for local drug agents, a flurry of cases this year and a string of fatal overdoses elsewhere in the Midwest are pushing law enforcement in the area to expand efforts to combat heroin.
Police and prosecutors hope to head off the drug before it needles its way too deeply into the community, with a particular concern that heroin might hold an appeal for youth used to getting a similar high from prescription pain pills.
"We've kind of got a new battle on our hands," said Tracy Peters, an assistant Cass County state's attorney.
After a decade of seeing only sporadic heroin cases, Cass County is prosecuting five cases of heroin delivery and three heroin possession cases, all stemming from arrests made since April. Another defendant arrested in June for possession and delivery pleaded guilty in July.
And in Clay County, four heroin cases are pending, which "is not the norm for us," Assistant County Attorney Heidi Davies said.
In a heroin case unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fargo, a federal grand jury has indicted six people on a charge alleging heroin distribution, a felony that carries up to 40 years in prison upon conviction.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Meyers said the abuse of prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which sell under the brand names OxyContin and Vicodin, is fueling the market for heroin because it's a cheaper alternative and more readily available.
Heroin, which like those prescription drugs is derived from opium, can cost half as much depending on the dealer, quantity and quality of the product, Meyers said.
"What's concerning about the increase in heroin is that the purity levels and the age of the people involved in the use and distribution of heroin is a deadly combination," he said.
As an example of the potential dangers, local authorities point to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the city and surrounding area has seen around 20 overdose deaths from heroin in the past two years, according to authorities there.
Taking a page from Cedar Rapids' playbook, federal prosecutors in Fargo convened a meeting Nov. 18 with local, state and federal law enforcement officials to discuss a community-wide approach to addressing heroin use before it gets out of control.
"We're trying to get ahead of this problem before it takes root in the community," Meyers said.
Coordination a key step
In his 21 years with the Moorhead Police Department, Lt. Brad Penas said heroin hasn't been a big problem, but the metro area has seen sporadic cases.
More than a half-pound of heroin - an unusually large amount for this area, Davies said - was seized in June 2006 when federal and local authorities raided a mobile home park in Glyndon, Minn. The bust prompted a 20-count federal indictment of 10 people on drug charges.
In January 2009, Moorhead police conducting a traffic stop seized 41 bundles of white heroin, leading to three arrests on drug charges. One of the defendants pleaded guilty in federal court that April to buying heroin in Chicago and bringing it to the F-M area and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
After that, "it seemed like it kind of died and went away again," said Penas, commander of Moorhead's investigative division. "There were no issues. And now here we are in 2011, and we're starting to see it progress again. It's coming back."
Fargo Lt. Joel Vettel said police have received intelligence reports that heroin use is on the rise in the Upper Midwest, but Fargo police lack the hard data to conclude that it's a major problem here.
"But we don't want to wait to get that (data)," he said. "We'd rather deal with it on the forefront and hopefully do like we did with the gang issue -really be proactive in squashing that."
Officials say the first step, which already has been taken, is opening a dialogue among police investigators, prosecutors, drug treatment specialists, medical providers, educators and others outside law enforcement.
While addressing the seriousness of the situation, the partners must be careful not to cry wolf, Vettel said.
"There is a risk involved in overreacting and saying we have a problem when we don't," he said.
The idea, officials said, is to stop the problem before it starts and avoid a deadly situation similar to that in Cedar Rapids.
Path from pills a worry
According to Christy Hamblin, public information officer for the Cedar Rapids Police Department, marijuana is still the drug of choice for the city. However, "heroin has come back more than what it was in the 1990s," Hamblin said. "Just in the last couple of years we've seen it resurface."
The recognition of the danger that heroin posed to the city prompted the creation of a joint law enforcement task force to address the problem, she said.
Scott Smith, Drug Enforcement Administration resident agent-in-charge in Cedar Rapids, said the average age of heroin users there ranges from the late 20s to early 30s. The pattern he's seen is that users who are addicted to prescription pain medication discover heroin is a cheaper route to a similar fix.
"That's a direct conduit," he said. "They were using diverted pain meds, and then the price of it got too high. Some switched to heroin to fill that void."
Officials in the F-M area said their biggest concern also is young people making the switch to heroin. Of the defendants in the nine heroin cases filed in Cass County since April, all but two were under the age of 30. Four were 22 years old or younger.
"These kids don't know what can happen when they're using this stuff, and it's highly addictive," Penas said.
So far, though, local authorities haven't seen an uptick in heroin overdoses.
"The majority of cases that we see stem from intentional overdoses on prescription and over-the-counter drugs," Susan Jarvis, vice president for emergency services at Sanford Health, told The Forum in an emailed statement. "We rarely see overdoses from illegal drugs, such as heroin."
Jarvis said there hasn't been a significant rise in overdoses in the past two years, with 588 so far in 2011 and 563 in 2010.
While the overdose deaths suggest a dire situation in Cedar Rapids, Smith said a heroin task force similar to what authorities are organizing in Fargo-Moorhead has made progress.
"All drugs have a cycle. They come and go based on what's popular," he said.
Federal cases may rise
Like Cedar Rapids, the Fargo and Grand Forks area is considered a secondary drug market. It's mostly a consumer market for illicit drugs, although it does serve as a distribution center for small communities in eastern and central North Dakota, according to a 2007 analysis of the Midwest by the National Drug Intelligence Center.
Penas said authorities know heroin isn't produced locally and that most of it is imported from Minneapolis or Chicago by gang affiliates. Authorities involved in the anti-heroin push in Cass and Clay counties plan to disrupt trafficking through coordinating investigations and using investigative tools such as confidential informants as well as searches and seizures, Penas said.
"We're going to make this a priority in our area," he said.
School resource officers also will spread the message in schools about the dangerous link between prescription pills and heroin. Education campaigns also are planned to make the broader community aware of the risk and the need to promptly and properly dispose of unused pills.
Prosecutors at the state and federal level said they plan to work more closely on heroin cases, which could result in more cases being prosecuted in U.S. District Court.
"With their sentencing guidelines, they can get some stiffer sentences than we can get here in state court," Peters said.
Meyers said the U.S. attorney's office will "aggressively" prosecute heroin-trafficking cases while still also focusing on meth, which continues to infiltrate eastern North Dakota.
Meyers said he can't comment on potential or active investigations, including the six-person case currently pending.
Five defendants have appeared in federal court so far, but details of the criminal charges won't become public until the sixth defendant appears.