This is the second of a four-part series on heroin and opiate addiction in Iron County. The first installment told the story of the addict. The second investigates the legal consequences that stem from this serious health issue.
IRON RIVER—While addiction may seem like a private affair to some, it’s anything but. Anyone who has watched a loved one or even an acquaintance spiral into its pit of despair can attest to that.
No addiction is tame. Addiction by its very nature is menacing, able to destroy an addict’s life from top to bottom–physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. This is especially true when it’s an addiction to powerful drugs like heroin or other opiates like morphine or the prescription painkiller Oxycontin.
But the tentacles of the growing heroin and opiate addiction health crisis don’t end with families and friends. They reach into the addict’s community. The community that chooses to ignore this reality does so at its peril.
Local law enforcement officials quickly attest to this fact. The equation is simple, Iron County Sheriff Mark Valesano said: The desperate addict will often resort to desperate behavior.
“A lot of people in our jail are there because of substance-abuse related crimes,” Valesano said. “They commit crimes while they are high, or they’re pill-seeking, or they’re stealing drugs from other people, or they’re stealing money to buy drugs.
“If a person has a several-hundred-dollar-a-day drug habit, the money has to come from somewhere.”
Iron River Police Chief Laura Frizzo concurred with Valesano’s assessment.
“The people that have these kinds of drug addictions generally aren’t working, and they need to feed their habit,” she said. “They don’t have any money, so out of desperation they’ll just go in and steal.”
This type of financial bankruptcy is a common consequence of addiction to illegal drugs like heroin or expensive drugs like morphine or Oxycontin.
Consider the plight of one recovering morphine and Oxycontin addict.
“There was a period when the only things I owned were two shirts, two pairs of pants and a needle,” he said. “That was it. I had sold everything, including my car, to buy drugs.”
When that state is reached and the addict’s entire being is screaming for a fix or to ward off withdrawal, a point of no return is reached. Either addicts have to face the grueling and terrifying prospect of kicking the drug or they must find ways and means of obtaining more.
While addicts certainly can commit vicious crimes like murder and rape, the illegal acts that local law enforcement contend with are mainly property crimes like breaking-and-entering and larceny or drug dealing.
“What I’ve noticed in the last few years is the dramatic increase in B&Es that are due to the drug problem we have here,” Frizzo said. “Our crime has done nothing but go up and go up and go up. We have so much property crime now, and I would say at least 60 percent of that is directly related to the drug problem. And that’s probably a low number.”
The lengths to which desperate addicts go to obtain money or the drugs they’re seeking is eye-opening. Police officers can rattle off stories of how industrious and crafty addicts can be. For instance, Frizzo said addicts have begun to infiltrate home health-care employment, solely for the purpose of pilfering patients’ prescriptions.
Valesano told a story of how one addict offered to help an elderly person carry groceries into the house. Once there, the addict asked to use the bathroom.
“They go into the medicine cabinet, and lo and behold, the painkillers are gone,” Valesano said.
The addicts are after either the drugs themselves or anything they feel they can resell for money to buy drugs. Frizzo said a recent object of desire is copper.
Other items such as jewelry, coins, stereos and other electronics are sought. The stolen goods are then taken to pawn shops, like one in Rhinelander that’s been used recently, according to Frizzo.
All of this criminal activity can inspire uneasiness and even downright fear in a small community like Iron County. Law enforcement efforts to confront this activity center around three areas, said Tim Sholander, team commander of the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team.
“Drug awareness and education, prevention and enforcement,” Sholander said. “We want to educate the public on what to look for. We want to get kids involved in things like peer groups. And we want to saturate the areas with police to drive it out.
“But a large portion of this has to be education.”
Another law enforcement effort recently undertaken comes from Caspian-Gaastra Police Chief Terry Post, who is seeking funds to cover the cost of a police dog to, in part, aid in searches for these drugs.
“This K-9 will be trained for narcotics detection, tracking and patrol,” Post said. “Our communities have had a lot of criminal activity, which touches all our lives. Adding a well-trained K-9 will be a very important asset to our community.”
Law enforcement officials also offered many tips to the community to help ease fears and confront any criminal activity. These include keeping doors locked, keeping others away from prescription medications and reporting any suspicious activity to police.
All law enforcement officials interviewed for this story agreed that holding the addict accountable for their behavior is vital. But to a person, they still feel compassion for the struggling, suffering addict within their communities.
“Absolutely, I have empathy for these people,” Valesano said. “You see people struggling with this, and it’s a terrible place to be.”
“I can’t say I haven’t had moments where I cried about having to take someone to jail,” Frizzo said. “These are not all bad people. They’re struggling every day, and we have to ask ourselves, ‘How are we going to help these people who are trying to rehabilitate?’
“But you can’t enable them, either. They have to face the consequences.”
The next installment of the series will speak to the health concerns and physiological effects of heroin and opiate addiction.