CROWN POINT | Heroin users can choose their poison.
They can get caught up in Northwest Indiana's signature street violence and leave behind a bullet-riddled corpse.
Or, they can overdose and make a different impression, such as the one Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey said.
"These men and women come into our office (as corpses). Overall, they look like healthy, beautiful individuals. It is very sad," she said.
Cheap Mexican heroin is the new wave in the work of Northwest Indiana federal, state and local narcotics investigators, said Charles Porucznik, executive director of Northwest's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
"Heroin has been a steadily increasing problem. It's coming from Mexico. It's relatively inexpensive, and it's purity has been higher than what they are used to seeing," Porucznik said.
Frey said her office certified 29 of 65 drug overdose deaths last year as heroin-related, a significant increase over the 2012 total of 48 drug overdoses, of which 23 were heroin.
"These numbers are alarming and if we continue at the rate we are going this year, we will surpass that total again," Frey said.
Earlier in the year, two 24-year-old women died within three weeks of one-another.
"One had just been released from jail for an extended period of time and the other young lady from a two-week substance-abuse program. Within 24 to 48 hours, they used heroin and died," she said.
"The problem is spreading east within our area," Porucznik said. Heroin-related deaths last year reported by Porter County were 16 and in LaPorte County, 12.
He said the overall drug threat in Northwest Indiana remains depressing, with cocaine still readily available, although somewhat lower than in past years.
"We also are seeing an increase in the abuse of prescription drugs," Porucznik said. "Typically, our overdoses involve 'cocktailing,' where they use prescription drugs, alcohol and heroin. There is an unbelievable amount of overdoses involving hydrocodone and Oxycontin.
"Although we haven't seen a rise in pain clinics in our area, people in our area of responsibility go to Chicago pain clinics and less-than-reputable doctors and then they sell the pills. We need to change to a coating on these pills so you cannot crush them and break them down and snort them."
The Indiana Department of Health recorded 254 deaths related to narcotics, hallucinogenics and alcohol in 2011, the most recent year available. That is more than a 41 percent increase over the same total for 2007.
"For our communities, heroin is a commuter drug," Porter County Sheriff David Lain said, explaining the absence of gangs in Porter County have turned many Lake County inner-city neighborhoods into open-air drug markets.
"We do have kids -- most users are kids, because they don't live long enough to be grizzled old adults -- who pool their resources and pick somebody to make the run up to Chicago and then come back and distribute it. They go to Chicago because there is a fear factor of driving into Gary for drugs," Lain said.
He noted much of the state and nation is dealing with a methamphetamine epidemic, but heroin is "cheap and plentiful" here.
"If we stemmed the heroin tide, meth would be there to fill that void," Lain said.
"Heroin is huge in Porter County," Porter Superior Court Judge Julia M. Jent said. She operates a problem-solving court for about 20 drug addicts at any one time.
"We work as a team. We have a case manager. The prosecutor is involved. There is frequent drug-testing. If they are mentally able to hold a job, they work on that as well as their education. We probably have some of the best-educated problem-solving court participants in the country," Jent said.
About one-third don't successfully complete the program, she said.
"But every day I know one of our participants is alive and drug-free, is successful day."
Lake County has long been a battlefield for the drug dealers who eliminate competing dealers and deadbeat customers. Frey counted 75 homicides in Lake County last year, of which a significant number were drug-related.
However, Porucznik notes this year has started off quietly. The coroner's office has only seven deaths as homicides in 2014's first two months.
"There may be a downturn in violence," he said, crediting U.S. Attorney David Capp's office with detaining and convicting 43 members of the Imperial Gangsters and Latin Kings gangs convicted of racketeering charges arising from murderous drug trafficking in East Chicago and Hammond.
"Those two gangs are not the presence they were," East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker said. "But there are always going to be people who want to fill those shoes, whether it's the Two Six gang or whatever. There is money to be had, and people who want to get it."
Becker said he isn't lowering the pressure.
"I won't say I feel comfortable that we are doing everything we can possibly do to identify, isolate, disrupt and dismantle the problem," Becker said.