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From pain pills to needles

Hundreds of Waupaca County residents are injecting themselves with opiate-based drugs, according to Ron Pehlke, a substance abuse counselor for Waupaca County.

“One or two new people a week are coming in to our office or a family member is contacting us for some help with an opiate addiction,” Pehlke said. “It’s kind of hidden, but Waupaca County has a significant problem with drug abuse.”

Pehlke, who works with the Department of Health and Human Services, said health care professionals throughout the state are treating a growing number of people addicted to opiate-based prescription drugs or heroin.

He said heroin use over the past two years has risen to its highest level since the early 1970s.

“I’ve been in the field of addiction for almost 40 years,” Pehlke said. “When I first started in Milwaukee, there was a methadone clinic at the county hospital. You had to be careful where you stepped because of all the needles. In 1978, they shut the methadone clinic down because there wasn’t a need for it anymore. We thought we had the problem under control.”

Solution causes new problems

Pehlke attributes the current heroin epidemic in part to the problems associated with opiate-based prescription pain killers, such as oxycodone and Vicodin.

“There are a lot of people who are taking pain medications, either for chronic pain or after surgery,” Pehlke said.

Addicts may start with a legitimate prescription. Then, when the prescription expires, they may try to obtain the drugs either by writing fraudulent prescriptions or by “doctor shopping” until they find another physician willing to continue their prescription.

In effort to regulate prescriptions on the market, Wisconsin has set up the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

Since January, physicians and pharmacists are now required to report all prescriptions for narcotics to the state.

This spring the information was entered into a database that doctors and pharmacists will be able to access beginning in June.

Drug companies have also taken steps to discourage the illegal use of their pain medications. They have changed the formulas so that the medication can no longer be crushed, cooked into a liquid form and injected.

“Now, it’s like trying to crush a piece of gum and if you heat up the pill, it turns into something like molasses,” Pehlke said.

These changes have made the prescription drugs that can be injected more difficult to obtain. Therefore, they are more expensive.

“An older Vicodin tablet is now going for $60,” Pehlke said. “Heroin is cheaper than that.”


An undercover drug-enforcement officer in Waupaca County, identified here as “Smith” to protect his identity, attributes part of the drug problem to misconceptions about the harmful side effects of prescription drugs.

“People think that because it’s a pill that can be prescribed by a doctor, it’s not a big deal. They start off taking the pills, thinking they’re safer than other drugs. They don’t realize how quickly they can become addicted.”

That addiction can lead to death.

According to figures provided by the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department, over the past 12 months 11 people have been treated in the emergency room at Riverside Medical Center after an overdose on drugs. Two of those people died.

Smith described an incident in Waupaca County about two years ago when a man in his late 20s crushed and snorted prescription pain pills, then went to bed to take a nap.

Later, the man’s family checked on him and found that he was not breathing. Paramedics were unable to resuscitate the man. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

“He obtained the drugs illegally,” Smith said.

Pehlke also noted how addiction to opiates can seriously impact one’s health. He said he can often recognize drug addicts by their appearance.

“They’re 25 years old, but they look like they’re 65,” Pehlke said. “With drug addiction there’s usually a loss of appetite and weight loss. You’ll see a general decline in a person’s healthy appearance.”

A broad market

Over the past 12 months, the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office has seized more than 1,730 grams of marijuana, 87 marijuana plants, 62 grams of hash, more than 23 grams of heroin and cocaine and 283 illegally obtained prescription pills.

Drugs can be purchased at bars and restaurants, in the parking lots outside sporting events or grocery stores, in secluded areas of parks or near water towers.

Chief Deputy Al Kraeger, with the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office, said he has seen a wide range of people who illegally use drugs.

He said teens tend to use pills and marijuana, while middle-aged, more affluent people use cocaine.

“There are older people who have been using marijuana for years,” Kraeger said.

Smith said he is also seeing a transition among teens.

“Ten years ago, a patrol officer working on the weekend would stop at least one car with an underage drinking party in it,” Smith said. “Now, it’s more likely that the kids in the car are smoking marijuana or using pills.”

While there may be a broad demographic using drugs in general, Pehlke said those addicted to heroin and seeking help seem to have certain things in common.

Pehlke described the typical client he sees as someone in their 20s. They tend to have attended college, but dropped out. They still live with their family.

“They are unemployed or working at a job that’s less than their capability. It’s usually a minimum-wage job that is less demanding,” Pehlke said.

Removing source of drug problem

Both Pehlke and Smith stressed the importance of disposing of medications properly.

There is a medication collection box at the Waupaca County Law Enforcement Center.

Smith said more than 1,135 pounds of medication have been dropped into the collection box over the past 12 months.

During its Drug Take Back Day on April 27, the Waupaca Police Department received a total of 244 pounds of medication.

Statewide, nearly 23 tons of unwanted, unused or expired medications were dropped off at about 180 sites that day, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

“These numbers reflect the volume of drugs out there that could potentially be diverted for misuse,” Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said.

“I would really encourage anyone who has a prescription for an opiate-based or synthetic opiate-based medication to take precautions in how they store and dispose of their drugs,” Pehlke said. “Better than half the people I’ve seen have started by taking drugs they found in a medicine cabinet or from a friend who obtained the drugs from a medicine cabinet. This ease of access makes drub abuse more prevalent.”

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