Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jan 2017
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 2017 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Author: Ashley Luthern


The deadly toll of heroin, deemed a public health crisis by many officials
in Wisconsin, isn't slowing down.

Heroin-related deaths in Milwaukee County skyrocketed by 72% last year
compared with 2013, according to data released Wednesday by the Milwaukee
County medical examiner's office.

In 2014, 119 people died from heroin-related overdoses, and for the second
year in a row in Milwaukee County, heroin-related deaths outpaced motor
vehicle deaths, of which 74 occurred.

Heroin-related deaths also account for nearly half the 249 drug-related
deaths investigated by the medical examiner's office. Several drug-related
deaths from 2014 remain under investigation, but heroin has been ruled out
as a contributing factor.

It's the highest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded by the agency.

"It's very disheartening," Milwaukee Common Council President Michael
Murphy said Wednesday.

Fatal heroin-related overdoses have been steadily increasing in Milwaukee
County in the last several years, reaching 45 in 2011, 53 in 2012 and 69
in 2013. Statewide, the number of heroin overdose deaths has risen just as
dramatically, with well over 200 in 2013.

The trend in Wisconsin matches national data, which showed an increase in
opioid deaths from 2012 to 2013 and a massive spike - 39% - in heroin
deaths from 2012 to 2013, the latest year for which federal data is

Combating the problem requires a comprehensive approach of prevention,
treatment and law enforcement, said Murphy, who was the key organizer of a
regional summit about heroin last year. He also has led efforts to install
permanent collection bins for unneeded prescription drugs at every city
police station.

"You see the corresponding impact on the community, even with the death of
a 1-year-old who was killed because of a bad heroin deal," Murphy said,
referring to the fatal shooting of baby Bill Thao. Police believe the
shooter was targeting the home of a rival drug dealer who lived on the
same block.

Although awareness about the heroin problem is spreading, the news of
increasing fatalities is frustrating for parents like Julie Berg, who has
shared the story of her son, Tyler Herzog, at parent forums and schools
throughout Wisconsin and as part of a public awareness campaign for the
Wisconsin Department of Justice.

Herzog was attending Menomonee Falls High School when he started abusing
prescription pills. By the time he graduated, he was using heroin.

"It used to be if I ran into people and I mentioned it, they would say 'Oh
really?' and kind of looked down on me," Berg said Wednesday. "Now,
they've heard about it and they don't think of your kid as a junkie
sitting in an alley shooting up. ... It doesn't just affect a certain type
of student, and there are a lot of older people that are dying, too."

The focus should be on prevention, and the link between prescription drugs
and heroin can't be overstated, she said. Once hooked on prescription
drugs, users often make the switch because heroin is cheap - about $15 a
hit - and accessible.

In addition to speaking out about heroin, Berg has become connected to an
informal network of mothers who have lost children. About 90% of the
deaths, she says, are related to heroin.

"You really need other people that understand where you're coming from,"
she said. "Until your child dies, you just don't know. There's no way you
could know."

She says she thinks about her son every day.

Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have focused their efforts on
combating heroin. Last fall, nearly 50 people allegedly involved in a
massive heroin distribution ring based on Milwaukee's east side were
arrested and on Friday, a Milwaukee drug dealer tied to two heroin deaths
was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Earlier this month, a 46-year-old Milwaukee man was arrested after an
investigation by federal, state and local authorities turned up nearly
3,000 grams of heroin, two handguns and more than $30,000 in suspected
drug money. The street value of the heroin alone was in excess of $585,000
- - one of the largest heroin busts in state history, Attorney General Brad
Schimel told Wisconsin Eye last week.

"That's a frightening sign, because it's demonstrating possibly that the
dealer network, the traffickers, are becoming more sophisticated and more
organized, and that's a frightening prospect because that says a lot about
demand," Schimel said.

On Wednesday, Schimel announced the Justice Department will provide
personnel and logistical resources to continue Drug Take-Back days, which
had been organized by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

During the last collection in September, 17 tons of unused prescription
medications was disposed of, making Wisconsin one of the highest
participating states in the nation, according to the state Department of
Justice. The next collection is set for mid-to late May.

Schimel, who has said heroin is his top priority, has called for
additional state funding for treatment alternatives and diversion

"If we don't help these people get sober, and if we don't help prevent
young 13-year-olds from experimenting with these drugs at a party, if we
don't put a stop to those things, we're going to fill up our prisons more
and more and more, and even worse, we're going to be filling up our
morgues," Schimel said on Wisconsin Eye.

*Several drug-related deaths from 2014 remain under investigation, but
heroin has been ruled out as a contributing factor.
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