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Opiate deaths surpass traffic deaths in Waukesha County

DA: Average age of users 24 or younger

Feb. 7, 2014

Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel said that in 24 years in law enforcement he never thought he'd see a problem as bad as the heroin and opiate epidemic that is now gripping the county.

The district attorney said the epidemic isn't one that law enforcement can "incarcerate our way out of." Instead, he said, the public has to be involved in understanding and helping to eradicate the problem. The problem is misunderstood on the basis of who the majority of users are and how they are becoming so hooked on the drug that they will lie, steal and risk their lives daily to get high.

Schimel shared this message with a group of Rotarians at a recent meeting. He has been traveling to give his presentation in an effort to raise awareness of the problem statewide.

Addicts among us

"What's a heroin addict look like?" Schimel asked. To the surprise of many, those who become dependent on the drug are typically normal, gainfully employed people. What's most disturbing, Schimel said, is that the average age of those who come through Waukesha County's newly created drug court is 24 or younger.

"The average age just keeps going down, and now we're seeing high school age (abusing opiates)," Schimel said.

He shared a photo of a young girl, just out of high school, who had a promising future, Schimel said. She fatally overdosed.

He shared another story about a young man from Muskego who was found unresponsive by a police officer in his car in a vacant parking lot. The officer was able to break the car window and call emergency medical services (EMS) in time to administer a drug (Narcan, or naloxone) to revive him.

The man was admitted to a mental health facility for observation, but released 24 hours later. Schimel said just hours after his release, the man's mother called police in a panic because her son was missing, and she was afraid he was using again. "They were able to track his phone and found him in his car, but this time it was too late to save him," he said.

Law-enforcement agencies constantly receive calls from parents thanking them for incarcerating their children so they know they'll survive another day.

'Opiate-seeking missile'

Addicts usually begin by taking prescription pills, Schimel said. He said his department is see cases come through the drug court in which high school students are grabbing handsful of pills at party — many times not even knowing what they are ingesting.

"They tell us at the drug court they don't think what they are taking can be dangerous. Doctors prescribe it ... " he shared.

From those encounters, the partygoers develop a dependence on drugs.

Schimel said law enforcement and former addicts describe an addict like this: "Your brain becomes an opiate-seeking missile. It's all you can think about, and the fear of death is not there."

The problem goes beyond teenage parties, though. The problem is widespread and undiscriminating as to age or social standing. Schimel said, for example, that he is reviewing two cases of law-enforcement officers suspected of stealing pills while they were on duty.

He said people think of any means they can to get the pills, including stealing from a medicine cabinet during a real-estate open house. "People won't notice how many pills are missing until they may go to their doctor for a refill and find out they're not due for a refill," he said. "People need to understand they need to lock this stuff up."

As an opiate addict's dependence grows, finding prescription pills, which are hard to come by and expensive, leads him or her to consider trying heroin. It's much cheaper and rapidly becoming much easier to get.

County leads state

Schimel said Waukesha County is the second leading source of heroin submissions to the state Crime Lab. In 2012, Waukesha County submitted 85 heroin cases to the Crime Lab, just behind the 91 submitted by Milwaukee County.

The problem has become so bad that a needle-exchange group recently notified Schimel's department that it would be frequenting the area. The organization parks a van in the community when a user solicits its service. It provides a kit with 10 unused syringes, cotton balls, clean water, a tourniquet, cooker tin and alcohol wipes.

Schimel's initial reaction was to threaten to arrest every person who came up to the van. But after visiting with the group, he understood that the group performs a valuable service by helping to protect the health of citizens.

The group explained to Schimel what reused needles do to spread disease and tear up veins. They described the desperation of an addict who uses water from a mud puddle to shoot up because they can't find a clean water source fast enough. And they showed a list of local ZIP codes related to where they have been asked to go. Just in Southeastern Wisconsin, more than 700,000 needles were distributed through the exchange in 2012.

"We saw the numbers, and our stomachs fell out to the floor," Schimel said.

Schimel said Waukesha County is an "end user" county, meaning this is where the drug is consumed, and this is where people are dying. In the last four years, 40 people have died from an overdose. He said the average traffic deaths per year in the county is 23.

"What would we do if traffic deaths doubled? We have spent millions on roundabouts. What are we going to spend to prevent young peoples' deaths?" he asked.

Gaining support

It actually costs less to put someone through the county's drug court than it does to deal with a fatal overdose, Schimel said.

Participants go through the drug court program for a minimum of 12 months. The program includes four intense phases requiring frequent random drug and alcohol testing, substance abuse treatment, regular status hearings in front of the drug court judge, attendance at self-help meetings, frequent case-management meetings and other requirements. This costs about $2,700 per person, Schimel said.

By comparison, it costs about $8,000 to deal with an overdose death, he said, once you figure in the costs of emergency medical services, the medical examiner, toxicology tests and more.

The program recently received $150,000, a piece of the $2 million Gov. Scott Walker designated from state funds for similar programs designed to help in the fight against drugs in about 15 counties around the state, Schimel said.

He said the funding will allow the county to have up to 50 participants at any given time in the program, instead of only being able to take the most serious cases. "We have a waiting list," he said.

"We've had to fight to get where we are. The county executive and governor have added money to the current budget," he said.

They're also working with state legislators to create new laws. One is to allow places such as police stations to have heavily armed drop boxes where people can safely dispose of drugs.

Another law would allow people other than EMS personnel, such as a police officer, to administer Narcan when responding to an overdose — a time when an overdose victim might not have time to wait for EMS to respond and minutes are critical.

Between 2010-12, more than 3,700 prehospital Narcan deployments by Wisconsin EMS were administered.

Schimel said both laws have passed the Senate and he expects they will also pass the Assembly.

State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen recently released an opinion that the statewide campaign against drugs is helping. He said people are reaching out to law enforcement to see what they can do. Van Hollen said the community approach is necessary to combat the drug, which is seeping into every corner of society. "Take a look at the numbers. By mid-November of this year, our DCI (Division of Criminal Investigation) field office in Milwaukee saw a 109-percent increase in the volume of heroin seized by special agents," he said.

Learn more at doj.state.wi.us. You can contact the Waukesha County District Attorney's Office at (262) 548-7076, or email Schimel at waukeshacountyda@da.wi.gov.

Average number of traffic deaths per year in Waukesha County: 23

Number of opiate-related deaths in Waukesha County in 2012: 40

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