MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen launched a new heroin awareness campaign Wednesday, saying few people realize the stranglehold the drug has on Wisconsin.
Van Hollen described the drug as a scourge at a news conference outside a Madison fire station to announce the initiative. He said police across the state have told him the drug is the biggest problem they face.
“Heroin is a major problem people aren’t aware of that we need to deal with,” Van Hollen said.
Heroin use has increased dramatically in Wisconsin as prescription drug addicts look for cheaper fixes. The number of heroin-related arrests statewide has risen from 267 in 2008 to 673 in 2012, an increase of 152 percent, according to DOJ statistics compiled from local law enforcement agencies. Police made 408 arrests during the first six months of this year, according to DOJ data. The state crime labs received heroin samples for analysis from 56 of the state’s 72 counties last year, up from 22 in 2005, Van Hollen said.
Overdoses have been on the rise as well; Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis told reporters at the news conference his department responded to 300 last year, double the number in 2007.
The campaign, dubbed The Fly Effect after a nursery rhyme about a woman who swallows a fly and then downs larger and larger animals in hopes of killing it, focuses on heroin users’ downward spiral. The effort includes a television spot, an interactive website, radio ads and video testimonials from heroin addicts, their parents and former dealers.
One of the videos features Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful finance committee. His 24-year-old daughter, Cassandra, has been struggling with a heroin addiction and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison in 2009. He said after she was released she fled the state to avoid a court-ordered drug test and has since been arrested in Texas.
“If parents think (heroin’s) not accessible, I’m living proof that even in small towns it’s there,” Nygren said in the video.
Another spot features Carol Buege of DeForest. Her son, Craig, died of an overdose in 2009. She said she didn’t understand heroin’s hold on people then.
“I remember saying why don’t you just quit, not understanding the power it has on your brain,” she said in an interview. “If you start, your life will be a living hell.”
Nygren and Van Hollen were scheduled to make joint appearances in Sheboygan, Appleton, Wausau and Eau Claire on Thursday to promote the campaign. DOJ has set aside about $250,000 in legal settlement winnings to fund the program.
The agency also has earmarked another $125,000 in settlement winnings to fund grants to jump-start local communities’ anti-heroin initiatives. Van Hollen awarded the first $25,000 grant to the Green Bay Police Department in August and announced another $25,000 for the Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force at Wednesday’s news conference.
Van Hollen acknowledged $125,000 is nowhere near enough to make any dent in heroin addiction. But he said DOJ doesn’t have the resources to throw money at every problem. The idea is to help local agencies find effective strategies that could be replicated statewide, the attorney general said. He said, too, that each DOJ field office has an agent trained to investigate heroin cases and the agency is working to stop large-scale trafficking in Milwaukee.
Nygren noted in an interview that the state budget Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed in June includes $2 million in additional funding for drug treatment and $1 million in grants for counties looking to establish drug courts. He also said he’s working on a package of anti-drug legislation, including a bill that would require parolees to submit to more frequent drug tests.
“None of them are silver bullets,” Nygren said, “but awareness is good.”