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Detectives who last week busted a large heroin ring watched customers stream in and out of drug houses in Utah and Salt Lake counties "literally like a drive-up restaurant," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said.

"This represents a real shift in the narcotics problem," Winder said of escalating heroin use along the Wasatch Front.

Three months of investigation culminated with the arrests last week of 11 alleged drug dealers and seizure of a large quantity of heroin, cash and vehicles in Salt Lake and Utah counties. Investigators also arrested 40 heroin customers who tried to contact the dealers — and stopped only because officers couldn't take on the paperwork associated with what appeared to be an endless stream of cases, said Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy.

"It will cause a bit of a supply shortage, ... but there are so many groups who do the same thing," Tracy said.

Unified Police and Utah County sheriff's deputies served search warrants at 15 locations — 14 in Salt Lake County.

But about 80 percent of the arrested customers were Utah County residents, Tracy said. He blamed the spike in heroin use on widespread prescription drug abuse; addicts who run out of suppliers for oxycodone are turning to heroin, which is easier to get and costs, per high, a fraction what prescription drugs cost. A tenth-gram balloon of the heroin confiscated was selling for $10 to $20 and was high quality — upwards of 90 percent pure, investigators said. Winder said the legalization of marijuana likely has disrupted drug markets in Mexico, making poppies are more attractive crop and driving up heroin supply and quality.

"It used to be, if we saw a half ounce of heroin, it was a big deal," Tracy said. Since January, 136 pounds have been gathered by Utah County deputies, already surpassing the total volume seized in 2013.

Investigators began looking into the drug ring when a concerned family member of a customer called officers. Investigators followed the tip "upstream," Winder said, and found an organized network of dealers distributing in a wide range of neighborhoods. Houses were rented or bought to supply customers "in neighborhoods you wouldn't expect," Winder said. "Dial-a-dope" deliveries were made by van. Customers were of all ages, incomes and ethnicities.

The 11 dealers — at least five of them Mexican nationals believed in the country illegally — arrested were selling heroin from Mexico, though investigators do not know whether they are associated with a cartel. In all, 6 pounds of heroin, worth about $120,000, were taken off the streets. Officers also seized 11 vehicles, $82,000 in cash and a dozen firearms.

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