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Editorial: Seek legal solutions as well as alternative treatments for heroin problem

7:04 PM, Jun. 26, 2013  |  Comments
Scars from needle injections remain on Douglas Darby's arms after years of heroin use. Darby was photographed at his home in Suamico, Wis., on Wednesday, May 29, 2013. Lukas Keapproth/Press Gazette Media
Scars from needle injections remain on Douglas Darby's arms after years of heroin use. Darby was photographed at his home in Suamico, Wis., on Wednesday, May 29, 2013. Lukas Keapproth/Press Gazette Media
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The numbers don't lie: Brown County has a heroin problem.

A Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team report, "Deadly Doses," earlier this month illustrated the degree to which the drug has taken hold in Northeastern Wisconsin, and the state.

It's no longer the drug of choice of only rock stars and celebrities; it's no longer confined to big cities or the coasts. It's here in small-town Wisconsin. Officials say the demographic of a typical user is an 18- to 26-year-old from the suburbs. The grim statistics illustrate the problem:

? Brown County had 12 heroin overdose deaths in 2012 compared with one in 2011.

? Marinette County has had six heroin overdose deaths so far this year compared with six in all of 2012.

? The state recorded 199 heroin overdose deaths in 2012 compared with 93 in 2010 and an average of 29 a year from 2000-07.

? The number of arrests for heroin-related offenses increased from 375 in 2010 to 671 in 2012.

"Heroin has become a huge problem in the state," said state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez. "Over the past two years heroin overdose deaths have doubled, and Brown County had the fifth highest heroin deaths in the state last year. This is an increasing problem impacting our communities, we need to take initiative to get this heroin problem under control and protect our young people."

We ignore these facts at our own peril. Law enforcement and drug prevention specialists can tell you about addicts who resort to crime to get money to pay for their drugs or who fail to kick the habit because of a lack of support. Business groups told GWM reporters about having trouble finding workers because potential employees failed drug tests.

When faced with increased crime, we often call for harsher penalties. But if tougher sentences were always successful, we'd never see a murder in a state with capital punishment. That's why we need a combination of solutions that take into account jail time as well as alternative treatments and information campaigns.

We're seeing it at the state and local levels.

The state Department of Justice will launch a $250,000 anti-heroin media campaign consisting of television and radio spots and a website warning people about the drug.

The 2013-15 state budget includes $2.5 million for alternate treatments. This would include expanding the drug court program to counties that don't have them.

The Brown County Drug Court started in September 2009 and has done a good job of giving nonviolent drug offenders treatment and supervision while requiring absolute sobriety.

A program like this is cheaper than prison. It costs about $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone compared with $4,800 to $6,000 a year for the drug court program.

The state budget also includes creation of local crime prevention boards in each county. Cowles and Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, have worked to include the provision in the budget. It would be funded by a $20 surcharge for any misdemeanor or felony conviction.

Meanwhile, we applaud the Acuity insurance firm, based in Sheboygan, for stepping up. Acuity committed $100,000 to support efforts in Sheboygan County to fight the heroin problem.

These attempts at addressing the problem leave us hopeful because they're not relying only on jail time and fines. They're not just relying on law enforcement. The solutions cut across society and that's a good way to take on any problem.

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