LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Police say it's like someone threw a switch.
Two years ago, heroin was a drug they barely saw on the streets of La Crosse. Now, they say heroin use is one of our community's biggest problems.
Investigators say the drug is becoming more and more popular, especially among young people who used to abuse prescription painkillers. Both are opiates -- a highly addictive drug that causes euphoria.
Thanks to new regulations, people who abused painkillers are finding the pills more expensive and harder to get. So, many of them switch to heroin looking for a more extreme high for a lot less money.
These days, Detective Sgt. Dan Kloss goes on a heroin buy once a week.
"We're going to a south side residence, where an informant is going to go inside a residence and purchase heroin and come back out to us," said Kloss.
Two years ago, heroin wasn't even on his radar. That was before dealers realized they could make a killing selling it in La Crosse.
"Exactly. They can go down there [to Chicago], buy it in bulk, come up here, and piece it out, and make -- what I'm told -- triple, four times the profit off what it is in Chicago."
So why are people in La Crosse paying more for heroin? Let's take a look at the numbers. Two hits of heroin costs $30 to $50. Now look at the alternative. One prescription pain pill costs $80. It's a cheaper high for users and higher profit for dealers.
"We have a very high demand for the drugs. And it's very profitable," said Kloss.14084748
The police department's strategy for stopping the rampant sale of heroin is to go after the dealers. That's where the informants come in.
One informant working for Kloss was caught dealing heroin last summer. Kloss cut this person a deal: they could get a reduced sentence -- maybe even get it eliminated -- if the information helps police catch other dealers.
But this informant claims to be unconvinced police can make a significant dent. Even if dealers know other dealers are getting caught, the money can be hard to resist.
"I mean, you make more than you would in a two weeks' payroll in an hour, not even," said the informant.
Besides the fact that high demand is driving prices up, there's another reason dealers can make more money off heroin in La Crosse.
By the time it gets all the way to a small city like La Crosse, it's passed through a lot of hands. Each time, it's mixed with something cheap like baking soda or baby formula. That way the dealer can sell a weaker product for the same amount of money.
It's pure profit, but the problem is a buyer never knows how pure the heroin is.
"It literally is like playing Russian roulette. You don't know how potent it is, how pure it is. You just don't know. And some users will try that heroin and, depending upon the purity of it, it could be their last time," said Kloss.
There have been seven confirmed heroin deaths in La Crosse County since 2010.
County Medical Examiner John Steers said he's seeing a disturbing trend.
"Most of them are in their mid-20s, you know, people who are experimenting with drugs in their earlier years," said Steers.
"You don't know how many lives you saved by taking down just one dealer. We'll never know. But I guarantee you it's significant," said Kloss.
Arresting dealers gets them off the street and into the courtroom.
But are our courts doing enough? Police say dealers tell them one of the reasons they come to La Crosse is they think the legal system here is soft.
"You see the people coming to La Crosse because they don't fear the consequences here. They know if they get caught, they're not going to prison. That's what my informants tell me. That's why they're flooding our area," said Kloss.
"The big people in the cities are sending their people to get rid of more product because I mean, if it's happening in their town, and they're getting punished for it, then why keep it there? Why not send it somewhere where they're not?" said the informant.
"It's all reward and no risk. And when you have that, that's a bad, bad thing. And it's a recipe for disaster," said Kloss.
That may be the word on the street, but is it true?
Is La Crosse more lenient when it comes to sentencing dealers?
"I doubt it. I doubt it very much," said La Crosse County Drug Court Judge Dale Pasell.
"I think I can say that generally, without talking about specific cases, that when we see people who are truly dealers, that we treat them appropriately in terms of recognizing that they have to be treated more harshly. That this is a very serious offense," said Hon. Pasell.
Assistant District Attorney Jessica Skemp said there's really no way to compare how harshly La Crosse sentences dealers to how it's done anywhere else.
"It's hard to generalize. Sentences are very fact-based, or plea agreements are very fact-based," said Skemp. "Sometimes we might get it wrong, system-wide. But I think that we do the best that we can with the tools that we have."
But she said, by the time a dealer ends up in a courtroom, there's already a problem.
"It's a supply and demand issue, I think, you know, when you come to the base level of it. And we need to really work on the demand part," said Kloss.
Skemp said the answer might not be more focus from law enforcement, but from the community.
"The ideal situation is where the community would come together and put more efforts toward prevention and treatment for people who are addicts, because that's where the business is. That's where dealers are making money, it's the people who are addicted," said Skemp.
While La Crosse figures out how to solve the demand issue, city police officers like Kloss are staying focused on the suppliers.
"I think as far as our resources go and what we have at the police department here, we're doing everything we can. I can honestly say that as a supervisor of this unit. We do everything humanly possible to get these guys off the street. It's a 24/7 battle. And it's relentless," said Kloss.
Another reason heroin is so dangerous is because users run a very high risk of addiction. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, nearly one in four users will get hooked.
A common misconception is that heroin is just injected, but it can also be snorted or smoked.
So if you're worried a friend or family member might be doing heroin, looking for signs of needle use won't do you much good. You're better off looking for flushed skin, severely slowed breathing and signs of drowsiness. Also look for changes in behavior, like becoming more secretive and pulling away from family and friends.
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