Heroin keeps a grip on city
Even anecdotally, it's hard to get an estimate of how many people in Janesville are using white powder heroin, the addictive narcotic that gained local popularity in early 2008.
It depends who you ask, said an officer with Janesville Police Department's Street Crimes Unit.
You ask one person, and you'll be under the impression that everyone in Janesville is using. Another person will come in and say it's not that bad, said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works undercover.
"Recently, I think we're seeing an uptick," the officer said. "But sometimes it could be as simple as we just found someone with a lot of connections. You might get that really good person who comes in and says they know 20 people who are using."
While police don't have a head count of heroin users in Janesville, they have compiled data about activities related to heroin and opiate-based prescription drugs.
As of Nov. 17, Janesville police had confiscated 57 grams of heroin in 2011. That's a 40 percent increase compared to the amount confiscated in 2010.
Despite the uptick in the amount of heroin found through investigations or controlled buys, police this year have arrested fewer people on heroin-related charges—18 charges this year so far compared to 41 in 2010.
The number of nonfatal heroin overdoses has stayed relatively steady the past two years—six this year through Nov. 17 and seven in 2010. Police responded to 12 nonfatal overdoses in 2009.
The number of fatal heroin overdoses also is in decline. The Rock County Coroner's Office in 2010 confirmed only one fatal heroin overdose compared to eight in 2009. Keep in mind that is countywide data as opposed to Janesville police data.
Data is not available for fatal overdoses in 2011, Coroner Jenifer Keach said.
As far as police know, no one has a large inventory of heroin in Janesville, said Sgt. Jim Holford, who runs the street crimes unit. Instead, short-term dealers known as "middlers" drive to Beloit; Rockford, Ill.; or Madison to buy quantities on demand, Holford said.
Like other business people, dealers will drive as short a distance as possible to maximize profits. Often, addicts use heroin as soon as they buy it before they drive back to Janesville, he said.
"If somebody uses in Janesville and they drive to another city to buy, they're going to have to use some portion of it immediately," Holford said.
When the middlers get back with a quantity of heroin, they cut the powder with another substance to stretch it. Then they repackage it and sell it. Often they use the money to support their own heroin habits, Holford said.
The cutting is what puts users at risk of overdoses, he said. Users don't know what percentage of their purchase is actually heroin. Lately, police are finding heroin that's been cut with powdered citric acid, Holford said. Dealers and middlers get that from "the van man." Locally, that's usually a worker from Lifepoint, a program run by the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. The worker distributes clean needles and drug paraphernalia to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases.
Powdered citric acid is a nontoxic alternative to cutting heroin with drugs, medicines or other toxic substances.
The middlers are the targets of Janesville's street crimes unit.
"Our mission from our chief is street-level dealers in the city so our neighborhoods and neighbors don't experience a drug house in their neighborhood," Holford said.
If Janesville police can get information from an arrested middler about a bigger dealer, police will pass that information on to other departments, he said.
Holford said one thing has stayed the same in the four years heroin has been popular in Rock County—the average heroin addict still is between 18 and 24 years old.
"You don't find many older heroin users," Holford said. "If you're addicted to heroin, you're not going to get old. You're either going to get off it or you're going to die."
The likelihood of prescription medication abuse leading to an addiction is why police take it seriously when they find even one or two pills in a teen's pocket.
It's frustrating when people ask, "Why aren't you going after the big dealers rather than arresting an 18-year-old with two pills in her pocket?" Holford said.
Even those two pills are a big deal, he said. If occasional use of pills becomes an addiction, one addict might deal heroin or prescription pills to three or five other people to get the cash to stay high, he said.
"I'm not saying everyone who's smoked pot or took a pill without a prescription is going to become a heroin user," Holford said. "But every heroin user or middler I know abused prescription drugs."
The Janesville Police Department's Street Crimes Unit is responsible for street-level drug and gang investigations in the city. Incidents and arrests listed below are for all drug or gang incidents. Heroin-specific incidents are listed as such. The overdose data is from the Rock County Coroner's Office:
Drug house busts—26
Fatal heroin overdose—1
Heroin taken into evidence—41 grams
Heroin delivery or possession with intent to deliver charges—40
Heroin possession charges —1
2011 (through Nov. 17)
Drug house busts—30
Fatal heroin overdose—Data not available
Heroin taken into evidence—57 grams
Heroin delivery or possession with intent to deliver charges—16
Heroin possession charges—2
Sources: Janesville Police Department, Rock County Coroner's Office