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Rise in heroin use feared

Users are getting younger

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published May 15, 2007, 3:27 p.m.)

Heroin is becoming a dangerous trend in Walworth County, officials say.

"I would say it's a growing problem," said Sgt. Jeff Patek of the Walworth County Drug Unit. "In the last year, it is starting to become more prevalent."

Heroin used to be the drug of choice for "experienced" addicts, Patek said. Now, it's reaching a younger audience.

"It's a trend right now," Patek said. "Can I attribute that to anything? No. I have no idea why. But other agencies throughout the state are seeing the same thing."

Walworth County prosecutors have noticed the difference.

In 1989, Wisconsin adopted its so-called Len Bias Law, named after the University of Maryland basketball player who died in 1986 from a cocaine overdose. The statute allows prosecutors to charge people with homicide if they provide the drugs that cause someone's death.

District Attorney Phil Koss said for 17 years his office didn't have a case to prosecute under the statute.

But since July, Walworth County prosecutors have used it three times. Five people face homicide charges in the drug deaths of three others.

Two of the charges relate to heroin deliveries and the other involves methadone, a drug sometimes used to treat heroin addiction.

Kevin St. John, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, said in five years heroin users have gone from mostly people in their mid-30s to early 50s down to ages 18 to 28.

"The fear is that heroin in the eyes of young people is losing its well-deserved reputation as a killer," St. John said. "People aren't as scared of it anymore, and people aren't taking the same time to build up to its use."

Heroin in Wisconsin predominantly was an urban drug, finding its way to Wisconsin from South America and overseas following traditional drug routes, St. John Said. Most heroin arrives in Milwaukee from New York and Chicago, and lately it has been filtering into the suburbs, St. John said.

The Department of Justice has developed a heroin initiative aimed at curbing the problem through a cooperative effort with local, state and federal agents.

"Instead of it being us and them, things have become more shared, and we are working together to help solve the problem," Patek said.

Local police have tried to use the Len Bias Law when investigating prior drug overdose deaths, Koss said, but the cases are difficult to prove.

"You don't always die instantly like from a gunshot," Koss said. "It's very difficult to track back where they got the controlled substances from. Police know to look for that right away and pursue those leads.

"In these three cases, we've been fortunate."

Between 2000 and 2004, the Walworth County Coroner's Office reported 26 accidental drug overdose deaths. Of those, three were from cocaine, two from heroin and two from methadone. Several others were a combination of drugs that included morphine, also an opium-based drug like heroin.

Figures from 2005 were unavailable.

In 2006, eight people died from drug overdoses, including three from opium-based drugs.

"With any drug, you never know what's actually in it and what the purity of it is," Patek said. "A person could be taking something that's 60 percent pure and are used to that. All of a sudden they get some that is 90 percent, and it's really strong. They think it's like the 60 percent (purity) and they overdose."

St. John said doctors are able to treat overdoses better than ever, but hospitals across the state are reporting increases in overdose cases, pointing to an increased use of the drug.

The best solution is educating people on the dangers of heroin so they choose not to use it, St. John said.

"We can't lose sight of the old threats to public safety because they still exist," he said. "Heroin exists in a different way now than it has before."


Local Cases

* Jermal A. Johnson, 37, Ladine L. Osinski, 38, and Devis K. Osinski, 42, stand charged as being the heroin supply chain that killed 37-year-old Rebecca H. Monroe, of Elkhorn, on April 3, 2006.

* Bobbie Jean Joecks, 36, is charged with supplying the methadone that killed Jason R. Bodart, 31, on March 26, 2006.

* Michael E. Flaherty, 26, allegedly gave the late Joseph William, 21, one of his best friends, heroin on March 18. May have died of an overdose.

All three Walworth County cases are still pending.


What is it?

Heroin is an opiate drug known on the street as smack, junk, brown sugar, dope, horse, skunk and other names. It is derived from the resin of the poppy plant, which grows predominantly in southeast and southwest Asia, Mexico and Columbia.

Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste. Illicit heroin can range from white to dark brown because of impurities in the manufacturing process.

It is extremely addictive and makes people feel like they're in a relaxed or mellow state. It is usually diluted and injected or snorted in powder form.

(Source: streetdrugs.org)


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