FENNIMORE — More than 200 people attended the “Heroin: Not Just a Big City Problem” informational session hosted by the Grant County Sheriff’s Department and the Fennimore Police Department on Thursday evening.
The Southwest Wisconsin Technical College cafeteria was filled to beyond capacity as a representatives of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, Richland–Iowa–Grant Drug Task Force and Grant County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies spoke to the growing heroin problem in Grant County.
“Heroin kills — that is the bottom line,” said Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman. “We are here because we believe in educating you and we want to prevent this. We want to be proactive.
“Do we have an epidemic here in Grant County? Probably not. But it could be coming ... the scariest part for us, as law enforcement, is the fact that it kills. We have experienced that and we want to stop that.”
Agent Scott Leck of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation spoke first, explaining the heroin in Southwest Wisconsin is transported from Chicago to Madison, and from Madison to the area.
One recurring theme of law enforcement in attendance was the connection that forms between prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse.
Brian Monahan has worked with the Richland–Iowa–Grant Drug Task Force for six years. He told those in attendance he has noticed an increase in heroin and prescription drug abuse in the last two years.
The Richland–Iowa–Grant Drug Task Force participated in more than 120 arrests in 2012, of which 16 involved heroin and another six involved prescription drugs.
“I have dealt with the prescription drug issue for the last couple years and every time I have interviewed an individual that used prescription medications, they said that is what got them started in using heroin,” said Monahan. “They started out by using the prescription medications by snorting them, and once that high wasn’t working as well as they expected, they started injecting prescription medication.”
Last year, the Richland–Iowa–Grant Drug Task Force participated in 96 arrests, of which 19 involved heroin and another 25 involved prescription drugs.
“It has gotten out of control,” said Monahan. “We have had deaths and we have had I don’t know how many overdoses.
“The heroin, once they use it, they’re screwed. It is a very hard habit to kick. The parents I have dealt with the last two years have done everything in their power to try to help their kids. It is sad. I don’t know what else to say but I am sorry they have had to deal with this.”
Monahan urged the audience not to hesitate to contact any law enforcement agency if someone they knew was battling a heroin addiction.
“We are here to help and we don’t always want to throw people in jail,” he said. “We look for cooperation.
“If they need help, we are going to try to help them the best that we can. We don’t have the money to give them the treatment, but treatment is what they need.”
Fennimore Police Chief Christopher French, who has worked the streets of the “City on the Move” for nearly 17 years, noticed an increase of heroin use in his city in the last two and a half years.
“A lot of the users I have dealt with started out at a younger age — 14, 15, 16 — smoking pot, drinking and partying with older kids,” said French. “Maybe that is one thing to look for if you are looking for signs in your own children or your own friends. If they are 14 or 15, they should be hanging out with 14- or 15-year-olds — they shouldn’t be out partying with older people.”
French reiterated Monahan’s warning concerning the powerfully addictive qualities of heroin.
“Once you start shooting heroin, you are hooked,” he said. “What the users told me is nothing ever beats that first high. That first high is always going to be the best high that you ever have.
“Their heroin use after that is simply chasing that original high. They continue to use and they continue to try, but nothing is ever enough.”
French said he was surprised to learn that after traveling to Madison to purchase heroin, area users will immediately inject it while parked in their vehicle on the side of the street.
“They want the high,” he said. “They are not going to wait to go home and deal with it.”
The issue of heroin use in Grant County is especially serious to Boscobel Police Chief Todd Stenner. He said his godson is a heroin addict.
“He became a heroin addict probably about three years ago,” he said. “That is when I first started investigations into some of the issues we have had in Boscobel and found out my own godson was involved in some of the dealing and using.
“It is personal to me, but I want to do what is best for my community and we are going to be very proactive.”
Stenner explained the issues in Boscobel began with alcohol and marijuana, but have turned toward morphine, Adderall, Ritalin and methamphetamine.
“Recently, we have had kids as young as sixth grade snorting morphine,” he said. “In just the month of January we had 12 charges come out of our department. Ten of those 12 charges have been with pharmaceuticals or prescription drugs.”
The lack of residential treatment facilities in Southwest Wisconsin was a second recurring theme during the nearly two-hour session.
“I agree there should be a lot more treatment options out there for people,” said French. “Fennimore doesn’t have any way to offer those treatments. So hopefully the state will somehow provide that at some point.”
Stenner agreed with French’s assessment.
“Law enforcement cannot solve this; it comes down to law enforcement and treatment,” he said. “There is not a local adolescent treatment facility, so our young kids truly have no place to go.
“One thing that I ask is you get a hold of your representatives, your senators. See if there is something that we can do to set up funds for the rehabilitation. Because that and education is the only thing that is going to help us.”
Also at the presentation was Mike Fernette, a former heroin user who now serves as an AODA counselor with Unified Community Services.
“Thirty years ago I was using heroin over in Milwaukee, every day,” he said. “I needed to use heroin because if I stopped using heroin I got sick. Most of my clients who are heroin addicts, the reason they continue to use is the fear of being ‘dope sick.’”
What is ‘dope sick’?
“The best way that I can describe it is that every bone in your body hurts, tremendously,” said Fernette. “You feel like you absolutely have to tear your skin off.
“That goes on for a couple of weeks. The first few days are really bad and because you feel so terrible the only thing you can really do is get more heroin.”
Fernette has served as a counselor for Unified Community Services in Lacnaster for over 20 years.
“Ten years ago I might have saw a junkie every once in a while, very rarely, but they were people that came in from somewhere else,” he said. “It is not uncommon for me to get a call every week or every two weeks from somebody who is having trouble.
“My perspective is it has really increased significantly in my clientele.”
Fernette told the audience he once locked himself in a room for two weeks, drank nothing but orange juice and took warm baths to kick his heroin habit. He also lamented the lack of residential treatment facilities in the area.
“The thing that troubles me most about this whole situation is we don’t have any place for treatment,” he said. “If you guys want to be proactive about this, you should be calling people and talking to your legislators about getting some money specifically for treatment in this county.”
“If we had that, we could make a big difference.”
Dreckman asked those in attendance to discard their unused prescription medication in the drug drop boxes in the area, including at the Platteville Police Department.
“Prescription drug abuse is a huge problem,” he said. “The heroin is an affordable substitute and that is why we are here.”
“If you don’t need [prescription drugs] anymore, get rid of it.”
Rep. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City) recently co-sponsored four pieces of legislation to combat the heroin epidemic in the state. The author is Rep. John Nygren (R–Marinette), whose daughter is in jail for heroin use.
“The important thing is that we are moving in the right direction,” said Tranel. “You are going to see more resources committed for treatment. Help is on the way.”
Dreckman was overwhelmed with the response at the information session, the first of two scheduled for this month.
“I was very surprised at the number of people who attended,” he said. “It shows that as a community, we are very concerned about the issue of heroin and will do whatever we can to educate ourselves and then take action.”
The SAFE Grant County Coalition will host an informational session at Platteville High School on Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. The session is in partnership with the Grant County Sheriff’s Department and the Platteville Police Department.