Our Views: Walworth County right to heighten battle with heroin

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is only the latest celebrity to die of an apparent drug overdose.

Officials believe they found heroin in the 46-year-old Academy Award winner’s New York apartment.

Here in southern Wisconsin, all ages and backgrounds battle heroin. Some addicts will rise above it. Others will wind up like Hoffman, who reportedly died with a needle in his arm.

Walworth County authorities are right to step up with new initiatives. District Attorney Dan Necci calls heroin an epidemic and is making it his top priority. He advocates a three-pronged approach: continuing county partnerships with treatment organizations, hitting dealers with tougher penalties and developing a new drug court.

“The treatment court model has been successful around the country,” he told The Gazette last week. “There’s simply nothing that compares to it.”

Necci has been district attorney just over a year but told the Delavan Rotary Club he already has seen heroin destroy too many lives. The number of suspected samples the county sent to state crime labs leaped 80 percent between 2009 and 2012.

Paving the way toward a drug court is a $157,609 recurring grant from the state Department of Justice. Judge David Reddy and a criminal justice coordinating committee are working to create the court, which would operate much like the county’s drunken driving court, which started in 2011. The goal is to reduce recidivism.

At a meeting Jan. 24, the committee agreed the drug court should focus on residents charged with possessing heroin and require them to spend 30 to 60 days in jail for detoxification and undergo random drug and alcohol tests at least weekly. Participants would go through three 16-week phases of programming, attend mandatory biweekly meetings and get six months of aftercare.

Necci hopes the court can turn around an individual with a first red flag and keep that from becoming six flags and imprisonment. The court would offer more supervision than users get now.

“One of the most important aspects is accountability,” Necci explained. “Coming before the court and all of the parties in the criminal justice system and saying, ‘Here’s what I’m doing, and here’s how I’m coming along in my program.’”

The grant will help the county hire a treatment specialist. If that person is hired and trained in time, the drug court might open as soon as May or June, Necci said.

As Rock County has seen, heroin addicts often start by abusing prescription drugs.

“The prescription pills are huge,” Necci said. “They give kids a false sense of security. ‘I’ve done a little of that, so why can’t I do this?’ They suck people in.”

Once addicted, users turn to heroin, which is cheaper and often easier to get. Necci wants recovering addicts to educate children about heroin’s dangers.

Necci’s three-pronged approach is laudable. It cannot come soon enough. Walworth County, however, might be missing one more important tool. While the county lets residents drop off leftover drugs during annual Clean Sweep roundups of household chemicals, it apparently has no drop boxes where people can safely dispose of unused prescriptions. Rock County collected almost 5,000 pounds in seven permanent drop boxes in 2013. Safe disposal keeps these drugs out of the hands of those who might abuse them and also from seeping into water supplies.

Rock County’s drop boxes might be one more model for Walworth County to emulate.

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