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Set in motion by widespread use of addictive prescription painkillers, Utah is in the early stages of a tsunami of cheap heroin that's led to a jump in robberies and bank holdups, federal and local law officers said Thursday.
But arrests and prison beds aren't the answer to the problem, the officials said in calling for cooperation of families, agencies and services to increase addiction treatment and take other measures.
"The tidal wave is coming," said John Huber, U.S. attorney for Utah. "We need to do something."
Huber brought together a coalition of federal and local law officers for a news conference where they described the burgeoning use of heroin that's supplied by the Sinaloa drug cartel from Mexico. Utah's growing addiction is catching up now to what's already happened in much of the rest of the country, they said.
"Utah ranks fifth in the highest drug overdose deaths, with an average of 21 Utahns dying each month as a result of prescription pain medications," said Huber.
He said 80 percent of heroin users nationwide start by taking pain pills.
The amount of heroin seized by law officers in Utah reflects the increase in usage 46 pounds in 2010, compared to 244 pounds last year, he said.
Official after official said that users who turn to violent crime are being arrested and sent to prison.
But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill echoed others in saying Utah law enforcement could not tackle the problem alone.
"We simply cannot arrest our way out of this," Gill said. "There has to be team collaboration from the community."
Gill said legislation was being discussed for the upcoming legislative session that would allow health care providers to track pain medication prescriptions to help spot addicts.
John Eddington, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Utah office, also said it is "important for the medical community to, for lack of a better term, regulate themselves and to get the message out to the medical community that caution needs to be there."
Although cases against doctors who overprescribe addictive pain pills are rare, Huber pointed to a trial set in January for Simmon Lee Wilcox, a St. George doctor who is facing several charges for alleged illegal distribution of oxycodone.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said there had been a recent "significant increase" in robberies and said law officers arrest drug-addicted robbers.
"We catch every one of them," Winder said. "They're not fooling anybody. The reason we catch them is they're high and damn near crazy."
He called on the Legislature to fund the second step of the reform of the state's criminal justice system that's to make available more treatment options for offenders and less prison time.
Huber said he was hoping to organize a heroin summit in perhaps January that would bring together different groups to plan a coordinated attack on the burgeoning heroin epidemic.