Striking at heroinLike an infectious disease, heroin use is spreading. The drug hit Douglas County hard this year, leaving death and disruption in its wake.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Like an infectious disease, heroin use is spreading. The drug hit Douglas County hard this year, leaving death and disruption in its wake.
Two out of three overdose deaths in the county this year are linked to heroin, according to Douglas County Medical Examiner Darrell Witt. The victims were 35 and 27.
Even narcotics officers fear heroin. Users generally are generally young, come from all socio-economic backgrounds, and will do just about anything to get the drug.
“I’ve had an addict tell me, and it will stay with me forever, is describing heroin he called it an ‘at all cost’ drug,” said Sgt. James Madden, coordinator of the new Douglas County Sheriff’s Office/Superior Police Department Narcotics Unit. “He’ll get it no matter what it costs. He said he gets up in the morning and he’s got to get $200 that day, every single day; every single day he has to get $200.” That person is now in jail facing multiple robbery charges, Madden said.
“They will do anything to get that heroin into their system,” from property crimes and middleman drug deals to prostitution, said narcotics officer Tim Monte of the Superior Police Department.
Heroin affects public safety in other ways. The high price of heroin in the area means dealers are more apt to be armed, Madden said. It also gives dealers added incentive to bring the drug to the Twin Ports despite a crackdown by narcotics officers.
A gram of heroin costs about $75 in Chicago or Milwaukee, said Monte. That same gram sells for around $300 in Superior.
The biggest fear for many of the local narcotics officers was that heroin use would hit local high schools. Since current users are in their late teens to early 20s, it could soon filter into schools like marijuana, they said. Especially since prescription drug abuse is a gateway to heroin.
According to the 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 21 percent of high school students reported taking prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription.
Statistics show a jump in heroin cases and seizures in Douglas County this year, partly because law enforcement is targeting the drug so aggressively and because there’s more to find. The number of heroin investigations rose from two in 2010 to 26 so far this year.
And these are not just low-level dealers, according to Madden. Those are trafficking cases, most of which can be linked back to Chicago. Thirty-four percent of the drug cases initiated by narcotics officers this year have targeted heroin. And heroin seizures have spiked from 3.1 grams in 2009 to 311.64 grams to date this year. That amount has a street value of about $90,000. Each seizure is a victory.
“Even if we get just a point, a tenth of a gram, it’s a point we got off the street that could have killed someone,” said James Olson, a narcotics officer with the Superior Police Department.
But it’s spreading. Madden said heroin has been found in Iron River. The state crime lab processed heroin cases from Burnett and Sawyer counties last year — three and one, respectively — the first cases in the past five years.
That doesn’t mean the sales of other drugs, like meth, have dropped. But members of the new narcotics unit — three Superior Police officers and two members of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office — are making heroin a priority. While other drugs may cause users to become violent, none is as all-consuming as heroin, the narcotics officers said. Users develop both a physical and psychological need for the drug and if they don’t get it, they become physically ill.
While someone high on meth may get violent and crazy, said Superior Police Chief Charles LaGesse, heroin addicts “go crazy when they don’t have the drug because they’ve got to have it.”
There are no recreational heroin users, he said. Three out of four people who try heroin once will use it again, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. And they will always be chasing that first high, according to Monte.
“That first hit of heroin will be the best hit they ever got,” he said, and no matter how they amp the dose they will never get it again.
Heroin users develop a tolerance to the drug and begin needing more and more for each hit. But purity levels can vary from batch to batch. Olson said every time you take a hit of heroin you’re playing “Russian roulette.”
“You never know what the hit will be like or if it might be the hit that kills you,” he said.
While Superior and Douglas County narcotics officers have been sharing information for years, the new narcotics unit will lead to closer teamwork, according to Madden. The joint effort was modeled, in part, on the Lake Superior Forensic Technology and Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which is comprised of officers from both departments. The new unit has also allowed for the inclusion of an additional narcotics officer.