Heroin injects Rock County
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JANESVILLE When heroin gripped Rock County, people started dying.
Six residents died of heroin overdoses in 2008, according to the Rock County Coroner’s Office, and five more have died this year.
“Heroin will kill you,” Janesville police Sgt. Jim Holford said. “It’s ruining people's lives. It’s ruining their families.”
Loved ones are dying of overdoses.
Paramedics are reviving people.
Addicts are committing burglaries and thefts to fund their fix.
Counselors are treating more heroin patients.
Drug units are ramping up investigations.
And prosecutors are trying to put traffickers in prison.
Heroin has become an “epidemic,” officials said.
“It’s in our middle schools; it’s in our high schools; it’s in rural parts of our county and metropolitan parts of our county,” District Attorney David O’Leary said. “It’s cheap, and it’s plentiful.”
The heroin pipeline
Heroin jumped on the county’s radar screen in early 2008, investigators said.
Heroin comes from South America, mostly Colombia, said David Spakowicz of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation.
The drug also comes from Afghanistan, where poppy growth proliferated after the U.S. military reduced the Taliban’s control over the crop, Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said.
The drug is smuggled into the country across the Mexican border, officials said, and it eventually lands in Chicago.
Heroin then follows the typical drug-dealing pipeline from Chicago to Rockford, Ill., to Beloit, to Janesville and beyond, officials said.
Interstate 90/39 and Interstate 43 make Rock County a popular drug-trafficking route, O’Leary said.
Rockford dealers have even done heroin giveaways to get people hooked.
“Heroin customers are very loyal,” Spakowicz said. “They need it every day.”
Heroin has swelled into all parts of the area.
“We’ve got cases in the county; we’ve got cases in Janesville, and we’ve got cases in Beloit,” O’Leary said. “We’ve got rich kids, poor kids, white kids, black kids.”
The most common heroin user is between 18 and 26 years old, Spakowicz said.
Younger teens used to experiment with alcohol and marijuana, he said. Their drug use sometimes escalated to cocaine or ecstasy.
It was a long road to heroin.
“The most alarming trend that we’ve seen statewide is the decrease of the median age of a heroin abuser,” Spakowicz said. “We’re seeing a more affluent, younger user, unfortunately, abusing heroin.
“Once you hit heroin, you don’t go any higher” he said. “That is the top of the heap.”
Users often start with painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, later switching to heroin because it’s cheaper and available.
People previously might not have injected heroin because of the fear of needles or HIV. But users now can snort heroin if they don’t want to inject it into their veins.
Heroin’s popularity has replaced crack cocaine, officials said.
“It’s more plentiful and it’s cheaper,” O’Leary said.
A bag of heroin is $10 to $20, officials said, and addicts often use several bags a day.
“Everybody wants that rush, that bang,” Spakowicz said.
People are drawn to heroin’s relaxing, hours-long high, giving them no cares in the world, he said. And they can still function while high.
“They start out thinking they can control it, but it eventually takes over their lives,” Spakowicz said.
Eventually, friends shoot each other up. Boyfriends shoot up their girlfriends. Women provide sex for the drug. Users steal and burglarize businesses for drug money.
People continue to get high to avoid withdrawal symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting, Spakowicz said.
“The withdrawals are so physically demanding on the body. They say it’s like the flu but 10 times worse,” he said. “If you start getting the ‘sick on,’ you’ve got to get some heroin.”
Janesville police focused on heroin investigations in 2008 after users died of overdoses, Holford said.
Investigations last several months while detectives use informants, surveillance, body wires and other covert methods to bust heroin traffickers, according to criminal complaints.
The investigations paid off this year when more than a half-dozen people were arrested on heroin charges ranging from possession to delivery, Holford said.
The department’s street crimes unit has ongoing heroin investigations, he said. Other drug units in Rock County, state and federal agencies also are combating the drug.
Officials share case details and cooperate on investigations.
“Heroin is in Rock County, and we need to address it now before it becomes a major epidemic,” Spoden said. “The lives that people have lost in the past six months are unacceptable.”
It’s hard to know whether investigators are curbing the problem, but they’re trying.
“Like any drug investigation, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Spoden said.
The sheriff’s office has added a deputy to help fight heroin, he said.
Two more deputies will join the special investigations unit, which includes investigators from the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies outside Janesville and Beloit, Spoden said.
Officials also are educating the community about the drug, he said.
Law enforcement officials recently spoke to the Janesville School Board. They want to meet with other school boards, city councils or town boards in the future, Spoden said.
Meanwhile, the courts must issue harsh penalties in heroin-related cases to scare users and dealers, O’Leary said.
And the county needs to expand its treatment options for addicts, he said. Treatment is scarce and expensive.
In many cases, heroin offenders use again when they’re released from jail, O’Leary said, and the cycle between heroin abuse and jail continues.