Changing the conversation about heroin

Heroin's got a stranglehold on Dane County, as it does on much of the rest of the country. There's no more denying that we've got an epidemic on our hands. Now, what's the solution?
Changing the conversation about heroin

Mount Horeb is the kind of small town that consistently makes those Best of Wisconsin lists, a charming community stretched lazily beneath a yawning blue bowl sky, nestled in the rolling hills and prairies of Dane County farm country. The kind of place where neighbors still don’t lock their doors and tourists descend by the busload to sip old-fashioned phosphates and snap photos of trolls carved from tree stumps. The village is known—officially—as the Troll Capital of the World. But unofficially, in recent years it’s picked up a far less desirable moniker: Mount Heroin.

“In 2011 we had what you’d call a perfect storm here,” says Mount Horeb Police Department detective Matt Kakuske, leaning back in an armchair in a quiet conference room at the station, Chief Jeff Veloff next to him, nodding. They tell me that’s the year heroin really hit, when, between the possession and selling arrests, overdoses, burglaries and thefts, heroin-related calls started siphoning “eighty to ninety percent” of the department’s resources. Suddenly the night shift was chasing kids who’d broken into cars and buildings; by sunrise phones rang off the hook reporting car windows smashed, propane tanks swiped from grills, copper electrical wire stripped from construction sites. “We had people stealing everything they could to be able to buy it,” says Veloff, the two recalling crazy scenes that became commonplace, like young parents passed out in public restrooms. One twenty-four-year-old made headlines when he overdosed, was revived, hospitalized and jailed overnight, then overdosed again the very next day. A three-time all-conference high school soccer star told NBC 15 he used to use heroin before games, that he had “five or six” dealers in Mount Horeb and that the users he knew were just like him, “good at a lot of things, talented, smart.” This is a town where stuff like that just doesn’t happen, and here it was happening, again and again and again.

But make no mistake, Mount Horeb isn’t special; it’s just the town with the name best suited to some twisted wordplay. All across the country this same brutal scenario is rapidly unfolding, spiking in 2011 and picking up steam ever since. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper today in any town, big or small, without finding a heroin-related story splashed across its pages. Since a lengthy investigation and subsequent dealer arrests, things have actually settled down a bit in Mount Horeb—although they have had one heroin overdose death this year. But they know the worst is far from over.

“From what our Dane County experts are telling us, 2014 is gonna surpass 2011 pretty easily,” shrugs Kakuske. “Right now we have the demand in the village but we don’t have the active big sellers. Where there’s a demand market, somebody’s gonna fill it in. It’s just a matter of time.”

Further up the road, Lieutenant Jason Freedman, commander of the Dane County Narcotics Unit for the city of Madison Police Department, tells the same story.

“This drug epidemic—and it is an epidemic—is far wider and broader and deeper than any other epidemic that I’ve dealt with in seventeen years in law enforcement,” says Freedman. We talk about Mount Horeb and he says yes, there, and Waunakee, and McFarland, and, of course, Madison, and just about everywhere. “There isn’t a single Wal-Mart parking lot in the county,” he says, where his people haven’t caught dealers slinging heroin since this whole thing blew up. Between 2000 and 2007, Wisconsin averaged about twenty-nine heroin-related deaths each year—but in 2013, there were 227. Perhaps even more sinister are the four to five thousand reported uses of Narcan that year, the shot that can temporarily reverse overdose by blocking opioids from attaching to receptors in the brain. In other words, deaths from heroin poisoning easily could have been in the thousands in 2013.

It’s a perfect storm, all right, and it brews on many different fronts—arguably the most turbulent of which is that so many of us still don’t get addiction. We just don’t see or understand or believe that addiction is a disease, a chronic and progressive brain disease, fatal if left untreated, compounded by stigma and shame, and even further complicated by its tangled relationship with mental health and the fragmented systems serving both. We think addicts should just try harder, be smarter, grow stronger, care more, so they can, simply, stop. But at some point for every addict—whether after years of abuse or that very first sip, toke, bump or hit—the choice to use stops being a choice. Brains are rewired, consequences stack up like prison bricks and free will evaporates. Using becomes a compulsion, then an obsession, no longer about morals or intelligence or willpower, if it ever even was. Take this baffling disease and combine it with crime and consequences and collective misunderstanding and pain and pride and plentiful but isolated resources and you’ve got that whopper of a storm, one that leaves so many people suffering, not actually believing that it can get better. That recovery is even possible. That life could be good again, infused with hope and peace, health and fulfillment, productivity and purpose. Because it can, it does, without a doubt, if you can find that help. It’s just hard to see the rescue crew through the blinding rain after that front rages through and you’re left, in shock, sifting through the wreckage.