NBC 15 – The Face of Heroin

REPORTER: Chris Woodard
Twitter: @cwoodardnews

It's dangerous and out of control. The heroin epidemic is exploding in southern Wisconsin and more and more innocent people are being put at risk.

Many people are finding themselves in harms way and those putting them there, those who find themselves sucked into the addictive downward spiral, are far from your stereotypical dirt bag druggie.

23-year-old recovering addict John Howard says, "It just keeps getting younger and younger."

"I always thought I had high morals," says 22-year-old recovering addict Alissa Curtis.

These young adults are the face of heroin addiction.

20-year-old recovering addict Tyler Moll says, "It's horrible. I mean it just consumes you. It was really big in Mt. Horeb. It was just groups of people you wouldn't suspect."

Curtis says, "It is definitely, literally, next door to you. For me it was probably easier to get that than alcohol when I wasn't 21."

The heroin epidemic in Dane County has gotten so bad countless number of drivers are passing out while high on heroin. Earlier this year one crashed into a city bus.

In Madison a mother overdosed and nearly died with her 1-year-old baby in the back seat.

And a T.G.I. Friday's employee had to revive an overdose victim in the restaurant parking lot.

Police have also been forced to warn drivers on the way in to Madison to buy heroin, they'll be watching. Earlier this fall they put up signs on East Wash Ave warning of drug enforcement.

Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force Member Brian Ackeret says, "Unfortunately, there is no reducing that trend in sight."

He says Dane County is in the midst of an exploding heroin epidemic. City leaders and professionals have even formed a coalition to come up with strategies to fight the problem.

It's a drug problem the likes of which this area has never seen.

Ackeret says, "Obviously, it's a high priority."

The task force says already this year they're aware of 141 opiate overdoses and 22 overdose deaths.

Compare that to 2007 when there were just 14 overdoses and 7 overdose deaths.

While the numbers may already be alarming this year, police say there are even more OD victims hitting hospitals that never get reported.

Ackeret says, "There is money to be made and unfortunately there are people out there that are willing to peddle a poison."

The closest comparison to this heroin issue is the crack cocaine problem Madison saw in the 90s, but even that didn't do this much damage.

Ackeret says, "You didn't have the volume of overdoses and overdose deaths."

Those falling victim aren't who you might think. It could be a football standout, the school's soccer star, or the girl next door. At this point there is no group and no neighborhood that hasn't been hit by heroin's devastating grip.

23-year-old Howard was a great athlete at Verona High School. He broke his arm in 7th grade, got addicted to the painkillers prescribed and quit football by his junior year.

He began skipping school and eventually moved on to a cheaper and stronger high, heroin.

He says, "For a while I was probably able to hide it. A lot of people didn't know."

Curtis was a good student in High School despite a heroin addiction her senior year. She even managed to keep a 3.5 GPA through 2 years of college while using regularly.

She says, "I was straight cut. I was completely against using. I never thought I would even smoke pot and here I am struggling with a terrible addiction."

Moll says, "The first time after you do it, you're hooked."

Moll was a soccer standout at Mt. Horeb High School. He was all conference freshman, sophomore and junior year. He had college scholarships within his reach but was kicked off the team his senior year because of drug use. He says heroin ruined everything.

"It consumes everything. You don't care about anything else. You wake up in the morning and that's the first thing you think about is how am I going to keep from withdrawing today," he says.

By all accounts Moll was a normal kid. He was into baseball, basketball and football.

He tried Oxycontin at 15 and by 18 was hooked on Heroin. He says sometimes he'd get high before his soccer games.

"It really does just completely take you over," he says.

Soccer is now the former standouts biggest regret.

He says, "That was my passion, my love, and it took it away."

All three kids say opiates, from Oxycontin to heroin are popular and very easy for high schoolers to get.

Moll says, "It was easy. I had 5 or 6 people I could go through in Mt Horeb."

Curtis says, "Oh yeah it was easy. I mean you can make a phone call."

Howard adds, "It was just a phone call away."

Moll says, "Seventy five percent of the people I know who do it are like me, who had really good lives and are good at a lot of things, talented smart."

It only takes that one time to get hooked. This is a problem exploding all over the Madison area, claiming the hopes and dreams of some of the most unexpected victims and there is no end in sight.

All three kids are in treatment at Connections Counseling in Madison.

Moll and Curtis have been sober more than 6 months and Howard for more than 3 months.

Those fighting against this addiction say treatment is a huge key but counselors say some people aren't getting the help they need because funding for treatment programs just isn't there.

Counselor Skye Tikkanen says, "People in my field have worked very hard to make sure people have access to treatment but the funding does cause a restriction and keep people from getting into treatment."

Another huge part of fighting this problem is education, making people understand the dangers of heroin before they ever try it. Education can also make sure parents get real and realize it's out there.

Education has become Carol Buege's passion.

We first introduced you to Buege 2 years ago. She has a gut wrenching story and one that was shocking to many of our viewers. She lost her son to a heroin overdose one month before his 21st birthday.

Since her son died she's been on a mission, stop the heroin problem so other parents don't have to go through what she did.

But she's been forced to watch as things only get worse.

She says, "It is just getting out of control."

Craig Buege was a normal, involved high school kid until heroin addiction took over.

Buege says, "It's awful. It's absolute hell and if I can keep other parents from going through the agony, it helps me give meaning to his death."

Craig's mom found him dead, in his bedroom.

Now she's using her story to educate others, both parents and kids.

She knows from personal notes she receives, she's making a difference.

She says, "It touches me in a very special way. It makes it all worth while."

The problem is, despite her best efforts, Buege is watching like the rest of us as this epidemic gets worse.

She says, "I think it is going to get worse. It's so overwhelming and it's so frustrating. You must not start, that's it, that's it in a nutshell."

As for those who hear about this problem and say, "Why should I care? These kids are just hurting themselves."

Time after time police have told us heroin addictions almost always leads to crime, people robbing, stealing, doing anything they can to get the drug.

Add that crime to the problem of people driving high and it means a lot of innocent people are caught in the cross hairs.