LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Heroin may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a drug problem in La Crosse. However, as we first reported earlier this week, police say it's a growing concern in the La Crosse area.
Police say the main reason is many people who were addicted to prescription painkillers are finding them harder to get. Now they're switching to heroin, a highly addictive drug similar to morphine. That’s because new restrictions on those opiate prescriptions mean heroin is cheaper and easier to get.
Still, you wouldn't think of La Crosse as a hotspot to buy heroin.
"In the past I think more people felt like, oh that's the kind of drug that's used in New York City, you know, in the worst of the worst areas. But now, it's coming out into our community," said Executive Director of the Coulee Council on Addictions Pat Ruda.
The drug can be injected, snorted or smoked. It results in a feeling of euphoria that can cause users to go in and out of consciousness. Heroin users run a high risk of addiction. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, nearly one in four users will get hooked.
"It is really a dangerous situation,” said Ruda.
Police say La Crosse is becoming a heroin trafficking point between Chicago and the Twin Cities.
"People in the inner city of Chicago that are selling a tenth of heroin maybe for $10 and they can come to La Crosse and sell it for $50, just because the supply and demand here is much less because there's not nearly the amount of drug dealers as there are in the inner big cities," said La Crosse Police Department’s Detective Bureau Lt. Matt Malott.
Those working to stop the spread of the drug say the heroin that comes to our area is particularly dangerous. That's because of how many times it changes hands before it's sold on the street. The La Crosse County Medical Examiner John Steers says, to make a profit, dealers make the heroin weigh more by cutting it with mixing agents like baking soda or baby formula. And that paves the way for overdosing.
"The mixing agent clogs up their veins and it can either cause you to have a heart attack, cause you to have a stroke. You could buy the same amount of heroin today, which could be 30 to 40 percent pure and tomorrow you get it from a different guy and now it's 60 to 70 percent pure. And your body's going to react differently," said Steers.
And Steers says the demographic of heroin-related deaths is a troubling one. Every single person who overdosed on heroin in La Crosse County this year was between the ages of 20 and 29.
Ruda says that's not a surprise.
"That ties very directly with prescription drug overuse and abuse. And that's been happening the last couple of years where we're seeing young people misusing prescription drugs-- oxycodone, some of those opiate type drugs," said Ruda.
She says more and more young people are switching to heroin when their access to prescription drugs gets cut off, or when their habit becomes too expensive.
"It's sad and it's unfortunate that these young people in our community are dying…. It's not always the person who dies fault. I mean, I realize that they have an addiction and that sometimes they can't help it because heroin is a very, very nasty, addictive drug," said Malott.
That's why the La Crosse Police Department's strategy is to target the dealers, not the buyers. The La Crosse County Medical Examiner says the way his office classifies heroin overdoses is also consistent with that philosophy of not placing blame on the person who takes the drug. His office typically rules those deaths as accidents.
Four people have already died of a heroin overdose this year in La Crosse County. That's twice as many deaths as last year.