Agencies fighting growing heroin problem in St. Tammany

In October, Ronald Ceplina rammed his Lincoln LS into the rear of a Slidell Police Department SUV while injecting himself with heroin. While both Ceplina and the officer in the SUV came away largely unscathed, seven other people died in Slidell last year from overdoses in which heroin was at least a contributing factor, according to Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith.

In fact, heroin-related deaths are on the rise throughout St. Tammany Parish, part of a nationwide trend, according to Keith Brown, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s New Orleans field division.

“The number of overdoses is increasing dramatically,” Brown said at a Monday news conference called to announce the results of a multiple-agency effort to curb heroin’s impact in Slidell and on the north shore.

So far this year, Slidell has had four deaths authorities suspect are related to heroin, and Mandeville has had three.

Parishwide, there were 11 heroin-related deaths in 2012, according to Ken Fielder, of the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office. Last year, that total rose to 17. This year, only one heroin-related death has been confirmed by toxicology tests, but another five or six deaths are suspected to be related to the opiate, Fielder said. If the pace keeps up, the parish could see two dozen or more heroin-related deaths in 2014, he said.

Law enforcement officials say the rise in heroin use is an unintended consequence of the effective crackdown on another class of illicit drugs: prescription pills.

“Prescription medication was more available” in the past, Smith said. “But at the street level, it’s not anymore. The pills aren’t there, so the addicts are turning to heroin to get their drug of choice.”

Heroin is far more dangerous than prescription pills, whose manufacture is highly regulated, authorities said. For instance, when users buy 30-milligram oxycodone pills, they can be reasonably assured that it’s exactly that, Smith said.

The same is not true with heroin.

“The purity issues on heroin are one of the reasons for the deaths,” Brown said. “Heroin is made in labs in the jungles of Colombia, or the high deserts of Mexico. It’s an unknown substance of unknown purity.” By the time it gets to the streets, it often has gone through numerous “cuts” with other substances to enhance profitability, and users often don’t know how strong a cut they are getting, Brown added.

And now that the purity of much of the street heroin has risen above 20 percent, a high can be achieved through either smoking or snorting the drug, Brown said. “The stigma of the needle is gone,” he said.

A total of 35 people have been arrested since St. Tammany law enforcement agencies and the DEA began their crackdown in February, Smith said. Each of the 35 was booked on counts of either heroin possession or possession with intent to distribute heroin, he said. “Several ounces” of heroin have been confiscated in the operation, Smith said.

Smith mentioned that a bill before the Legislature — House Bill 332 — would double the minimum penalty for making or distributing heroin from five years to 10 years.

Sheriff Jack Strain said law enforcement must remain vigilant because even if heroin disappears from the streets, something else will appear.

“If we eradicate this one 100 percent, tomorrow there will be another one to take its place,” he said.