© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa Parents "Mortified" by Heroin Epidemic

Joyce Russell/IPR
Kim Brown of Davenport. Her son Andy Brown died of a heroin overdose in 2011.

Police, prosecutors, and medical professionals  gathered in Iowa City yesterday to address the growing problem of heroin addiction in Iowa.       

They heard how overuse of prescription painkillers leads addicts to opt for heroin which is cheaper and easier to get.  

Heroin now rivals the methamphetamine epidemic.

Dr. Anthony Miller with Veterans Hospital in Iowa City says the heroin problem has its roots in the 1990’s when views on managing pain shifted in American medicine.   

He says providers began to think that undertreating pain was wrong, and that opioids are safe.

“And between the years of 1997 and 2007 the amount of opioids prescribed in the United States quadrupled,” Miller says. “In Iowa it only tripled.”

Addiction to opioids soared.   Now addicts who started on pain pills are injecting heroin to satisfy the craving.  So the heroin death we used to associate with a sordid ghetto life is coming to the boy and girl next door. 

Andy Brown of Davenport was prescribed Percocet for pain after surgery when he was 14.   He died of heroin overdose at the age of 33. 

His mother, Kim Brown, showed pictures of her all-American-looking son:

“He doesn’t look like he was putting a needle in his arm, does he?” Brown asks.

Andy Brown overdosed three times in all.

“The third time he died,” Brown says.  “The person he was with didn’t call for help.”

Brown now advocates for easier access to a medicine that works as an antidote for an overdose that would otherwise be deadly.  

That’s one of several strategies experts examined to minimize the damage from heroin use, while law enforcement struggles to keep it off the streets.      

Federal Drug Enforcement Agent Matt Bradford says big heroin busts are going down in Chicago.

“Chicago is your main source city that supplies Iowa,” Bradford says.   “So Chicago is important.”

Bradford says the drug is coming primarily from the Sinoloa cartel in Mexico.    Now officials have launched the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative to address prevention, treatment and enforcement in Linn, Johnson, Blackhawk, and Dubuque Counties.

Jerrry Blomgren with the Johnson County Narcotics Task Force came with several of his undercover cops.

“We do undercover buys of drugs and heroin is one we've worked on a lot in the last couple of years,” Blomgren says.   “Heroin has been a big problem for all of us.”        

Because there’s more heroin in eastern Iowa, there are also more methodone clinics to treat the addicted.      

Kevin Gabbert with the Iowa Department of Public Health shows a map of where methodone clinics  are located statewide.

“We have central Iowa,  a good portion of eastern Iowa,” Gabbert says.  “But in western Iowa it’s Council Bluffs and Sioux City and that leaves not a lot of options when patients are coming for daily dosing.”

While heroin has grabbed the attention of Iowans, the relatively older problem of painkiller addiction persists.    Experts say student athletes should be educated about pain meds.   They say employers should be aware of the potential for their employees to be overprescribed pain meds following workplace injuries. 

Keynote speaker was Sam Quinones,  author of Dreamland:  the True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic.”  He says pharmaceutical companies should be paying for the unused drug collection efforts underway in some Iowa  towns. 

He says heroin use has exploded because it hasn’t been acknowledged like meth. 

“People have been mortified to tell you their kid died in a McDonald’s bathroom with a needle in his arm,” Quinones says.   

Kim Brown knows that firsthand.

“When my son died in 2011, I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Brown says.    

Brown now heads up a group for parents who’ve lost children to drug overdose.    She’ll be back at the capitol next year pushing for a law to let families have the antidote that stops a heroin overdose.    She says that might have saved her son’s life.