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Our Views: Call a community summit on heroin

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May 10, 2014

“Heroin is in Janesville. It's real. It's serious. My story is not unique. … People don't think the athletes or those on the honor roll do heroin. Everyone thinks it's the dropout kids. They are wrong.”

—Recovering heroin addict, age 20, in 2009

Five years after Gazette reporter Anna Marie Lux interviewed the woman quoted above in a series of stories, Rock County's heroin problem has grown worse. More disheartening, many families still express surprise when their loved ones fall victim, as if they never heard of this insidious drug.

In a more compassionate light, perhaps these families are admitting they never imagined heroin could victimize their brothers or sisters, sons or daughters.

Lux again detailed “Heroin's heartbreak” last Sunday. The numbers should startle everyone. Chief Deputy/Acting Coroner Louis Smit analyzed case files and determined that, since 2006, Rock County has suffered at least 251 overdose deaths from heroin and other opiates.

Two hundred and fifty one.

A stunning 64 died in 2012 alone. At least 20 succumbed last year, and 13 more cases await final toxicology reports. So far this year, 26 deaths and another 10 suspected.

Sheriff Robert Spoden has been sounding the alarm for years, but his office's response has become political. In a Gazette story May 1, sheriff's Capt. Gary Groelle, who's challenging Spoden in the Aug. 12 Democratic primary, said what's being done isn't working and “we could be doing better.”

Parents should talk about the dangers with their children, and some do. Teachers must repeatedly stress the risks to students. Law enforcement must root out traffickers. Doctors must prescribe powerful pain medicines carefully.

These conversations and efforts should continue. This highly addictive drug, however, is still shattering more families each month. Even if your family isn't affected, addicts steal property to pay for heroin, and these crimes affect us all.

It's time for united action. Our leaders should call a community summit.

Rock County Judge Richard Werner said Monday he thinks such a gathering could help to share ideas and better spread the word to parents, schools and churches.

Werner presides over Rock County's drug court. It has “graduated” 215 people since 2007. Still, he calls heroin an epidemic.

“I don't think there can ever be enough conversation, especially among the people who can make a difference: the courts, law enforcement, treatment providers and those advising young people in the schools,” he told Lux.

He hopes Smit's numbers open eyes.

Spoden warns adults to lock up prescription painkillers and properly dispose of leftovers because kids will steal and experiment with them at parties. Through experimentation, people get hooked on painkillers and turn to cheap and easy-to-get heroin.

That's what happened to Barbara VanGalder's son Clayton Smith. Barbara told Lux how Clayton got hooked on drugs after suffering a severe head injury.

Fear of withdrawal hindered his recovery attempts. The lack of a residential treatment center in Rock County didn't help. Even getting Clayton a treatment appointment “seemed to take forever,” Barbara said.

He died with a needle in his arm Jan. 25.

Werner agrees the lack of a residential treatment center here is “very problematic.” Without one, addicts face waiting lists or find insurance won't pay for treatment elsewhere. Some don't want to enter facilities and might be even more reluctant if they're many miles from supportive loved ones.

If the lack of such a facility is a glaring gap, a community summit might focus attention on opening one.

We cannot wait any longer.

Rock County needs a unified front in its battle against heroin.



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