Prosecutors and police are making a connection between opiate thefts and heroin addictions.
Madison police responded to two pharmacy robberies Tuesday morning.
The first happened shortly after 9 a.m. on the 300 block of State Street. A man walked into the Community Pharmacy with his hands in his pockets as if he had a gun. He demanded morphine and other medications, and ran off with the drugs.
About two hours later, a man committed a similar robbery at the Shopko near East Towne Mall. Police believe the same man is responsible for both crimes.
A person of interest was found walking along East Washington Avenue near the mall. That man was detained but not formally arrested.
Also Tuesday morning, Tony Taylor took the stand briefly to waive his right to a preliminary hearing.
Taylor is charged with one count of armed robbery and four counts of theft, accused of stealing Oxycontin from at least 14 pharmacies around the state. According to a criminal complaint on the case, Taylor admitted to police he stole thousands of dollars of drugs to feed his own addiction.
Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney is concerned that opiates can open the door to other addictions.
“It can be a gateway into more serious opiate-related drugs, and we're beginning to see that problem throughout the county, and primarily with the use of heroin,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney said people are often introduced to the drugs through legal means, often a painkiller prescription from a doctor. He said when that source of medication dries up, addicts will buy them off of the streets, which can be very expensive. That can lead some to resort to criminal means of funding the habit, like robberies and break-ins.
Mahoney said others turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative, which is contributing to more overdose calls for his deputies. He mentioned people who have pulled up to the bank teller window and passed out while shooting up.
“They're becoming more and more common, and we're seeing more and more calls for patrol deputies to address those kinds of calls for service,” Mahoney said.
Dane County District Attorney Ishmael Ozanne has tried enough cases to understand the link between prescription opiates and heroin. He echoed Mahoney’s experience of people first getting the drug through legitimate means before getting hooked.
“This is not something you can play around with and sort of take and leave,” Ozanne said.
Ozanne said heroin has become more pure over the years, possibly shaking some of its negative stigma.
“I think the problem you have with heroin is the price is such that many times, it’s cheaper than trying to find prescriptions,” Ozanne explained, “and the purity is such that people are moving toward that.”
While he couldn’t speak to specific cases, Ozanne said admissions like Taylor’s are common in court.
“Often times, they are quite up front to tell you that it was because they were trying to feed a habit,” Ozanne said.
Ozanne has seen more and more county resources allocated to treating opiate addictions and helping heroin addicts get back on their feet. He said Dane County’s drug court has focused more on heroin and started looking more at treating serious offenders.
On top of that, the district attorney’s office received a federal grant to hire on a new deferred prosecution counselor. That person will deal with opiate offenders, allowing the program to serve 25-30 more people than before.
“We are getting to the place where we can expand our ability to help handle some of these people with addictions in a manner that doesn't necessarily mean they have to be convicted of a crime,” Ozanne said.