Like a cancer, heroin use is spreading throughout the state at an alarming rate.
The incidence of heroin cases is no longer just the scourge of larger, metropolitan areas like Milwaukee and Madison; heroin has started to hit home in smaller communities, a state official says.
"The rural areas of Wisconsin are experiencing the destructive power of this drug in a way that defies the traditional understanding of drug use," said state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
In the last five years, heroin use in Wisconsin has jumped nearly 400 percent — a deeply troubling trend, Van Hollen said.
Just a few years ago, heroin cases in Fond du Lac and Dodge counties were few and far between.
But in the last 18 months, that has changed. In 2009, Dodge County recorded three overdose deaths attributed to heroin use. In September, a 22-year-old Fond du Lac man was found dead in his apartment, apparently the victim of a heroin overdose.
"Obviously, what we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg," said Dodge County Medical Examiner PJ Schoebel. "There's a lot of drug use out there — people of all ages."
An old nemesis
Heroin is nothing new. However, the Columbian strain of the drug now infiltrating the Midwest is more affordable and more pure, allowing for multiple methods of delivery and a greater potential for overdose.
"Heroin used to conjure up the image of the junkie shooting up in a dark alley. Now, with a 10-fold increase in purity from the heroin of the '60s and '80s, you can snort or smoke it, which has taken away some of that stigma attached to intravenous drug use," said Dave Spakowicz, director of field operations for the state Department of Justice.
Spakowicz, who has investigated heroin use and trafficking in Wisconsin for more than 10 years, estimates that 70 percent of the heroin in the state traveled across the Mexican border and was shipped north to Chicago.
"What we're seeing in the Fox Valley is what we saw in the Milwaukee area four, five years ago," Spakowicz said. "The big influx into the non-traditional urban areas is coming from the users-buyers who are buying for their own use and selling what's left to support their habit."
"Users of illegal drugs are usually in the middle to lower economic class. So when they start looking for a fix, they are conscientious shoppers and go with what drug will give then the best bang for their money," said Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls.
In the past year, street prices for narcotics like OxyContin have doubled. Conversely, prices for a quarter-gram bag of heroin have fallen to around $5 to $10 and it can be resold in Wisconsin for anywhere from $25 to $40 a bag, said Brad Dunlop, project director for the Lake Winnebago Area Metropolitan Enforcement Group.
"That's what's driving mid-level dealers to start selling up here — there's a profit to be made," said Dunlap, who estimates that around 90 percent of heroin users are former OxyContin addicts.
It used to take years for someone to build a drug habit from recreational marijuana use all the way up the ladder to harder drugs like heroin, but the progression now happens more quickly.
"There's this misconception out there by first-time users that they won't get addicted or become an IV drug user if they only snort heroin. That's so untrue," Spakowicz said. "Everyone keeps on chasing that high with more and more heroin. Pretty soon, they've switched to IV use."
Spakowicz said drug enforcement officials are also seeing another alarming trend.
"We've seen females that are light drug users being shot up with heroin by their boyfriends," he said. "Because of the high purity, they can go right from marijuana to heroin and be addicted in no time."
Area law enforcement officers knew it was only a matter of time before heroin found its way into Fond du Lac, said Deputy Police Chief Kevin Lemke. In addition to the horrific physical side effects heroin addiction unleashes on the user, Lemke said the community at large will also feel the pain.
"Once an area has been introduced to a high quality of cheap heroin, we see the prices starting to increase and the quality fall," Lemke said. "Because someone with a serious addiction needs more and more drugs to maintain the high and keep from withdrawing, the addiction becomes expensive. At that time, we'll start to see more thefts, car entries, burglaries and possibly armed robberies in the community."
Those who become caught up in the addictive nature of heroin often find themselves in an endless cycle of rehab and relapse.
"A lot of times, they'll check out of rehab and go right back to using," Spakowicz said. "What's scary is that after 30 days of being clean, their tolerance level has dropped. When they try to use the same amount as before, there's a strong potential for them to overdose and die."
Van Hollen says he is committed to curtailing the spread of heroin by partnering with other law enforcement agencies, multijurisdictional enforcement teams and prosecutors like Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg, who hopes to send a strong message to heroin dealers.
"The most important thing we need to do as a law enforcement community and as a greater community in protecting our kids is to stop the access to heroin," Klomberg said. "Distributing heroin is a very serious crime, and I'll be treating these cases very sternly, asking for prison time more often than not."
By Colleen Kottke
November 21, 2010
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.