The war on drugs is not lost.
Witness the Western Healthcare Coalition’s all-day symposium, “Bringing Solutions Together to Stop the Illicit Drug Epidemic,” which took place on Feb. 29 in the Cargill Room at the Waterfront in La Crosse.
One of the coalition’s presenters, Al Bliss of the La Crosse County Public Health Department, said organizers anticipated 50 to 75 people. The room was filled with more than 260, including “a variety of individuals” from educators, health care workers, law enforcement officials, lawmakers and community stakeholders, even those in recovery.
Houston County Sheriff Mark Inglett was in attendance, as well as county public health officials; board of commissioners chairman Judy Storlie attended that evening’s forum, which included the Lyberts, a Wisconsin family who shared their harrowing journey through addiction and recovery.
Bliss said the coalition and forum are the first of its kind and closely tied to the work of the La Crosse County Heroin and Illicit Drug Taskforce, which encourages education through planning sessions and strategic prioritization.
The symposium and forum were aimed at giving those in attendance the chance to network and take strategies back to their communities, a continuation of the collective support to stop illicit drug use.
“This is probably one of the most caring groups of individuals that I’ve seen come together for this,” Bliss said.
The coalition is a public health model employed to overcome the often sobering statistics that reflect drug use and abuse in the Coulee Region.
According to data provided to attendees, 10.2 percent of people 12-years-old and older in the U.S. have reported using illicit drugs in the past 30 days, with its increase mostly driven by marijuana and non-medical use of prescription pain relievers.
Data from last year shows 24 percent of La Crosse County high school students have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days; 15 percent have “binge” drank in the past month; 31 percent have used marijuana within their lifetime; 14 percent have used prescription drugs without a doctor’s permission; 13 percent were offered, sold or given drugs by someone on school property in the past year; and 3 percent have used heroin once or more in their lifetime.
The distributed manual, a primer of sorts, included a wealth of information and strategies to inform those who continue to fight against the intrusion of everything from heroin to methamphetamines into the community.
The huge response to the event, Bliss said, was a more than hopeful sign.
“I’d like to challenge your way of thinking on this,” he said, “when we say the war on drugs is lost.”
Speakers for the symposium included Dr. Chris Eberlein, Western HCC Medical Advisor, and Wisconsin Rep. John Nygren on HOPE legislation. The attendees were given the chance to participate in break-out sessions, sharing reports, information, strategic planning and other productive elements.
Sarah Osborne, representing the U.S. Department of Justice, spoke of her job with the Drug Enforcement Administration as a diversion officer, and she mostly focused on pharmaceutical abuse, statistics and trends. Part of her goal was to de-mystify the way officers, such as herself, are seen by the public.
“They think they know about law enforcement from TV,” Osborne said.
She also went over the classification systems of five schedules of drugs at the federal level, as well as identifying the common pharmaceuticals and street drugs in the world today.
Her talk ranged on everything from employee pilferage, suppliers, terms such as “smuring” and “pharming,” drug store break-ins, forged prescriptions, fentanyl-laced heroin overdoses, opioids, and even the Internet’s role.
“Overseas,” she said, “you can get what you think are pharmaceuticals, but I think this might be one of the scariest methods to get your drugs.”
What you might think you’re receiving could be baking powder, saw dust or rat poison.
“You really have no idea what you’re getting,” she said.
Wisconsin, Osborne noted, had the second-largest number of pharmacy robberies in the country (as of last June); only Indiana was ahead in the ranking.
Fifty total robberies were in Wisconsin, with a “good number” in the Milwaukee area, she said.
“It’s definitely a trend,” she said.
Osborne even went through a series of websites and Smartphone apps designed to help people identify drugs they may come across in medicine cabinets or other areas of the home.
Inglett, who had only recently made his first year-end report to the Houston County Board of Commissioners, said he was heartened by the coalition’s work.
“I was really happy to see the way we’re all working together,” Inglett said. “I see it as community leaders recognizing we all have to be a team.”
Statistics show that in Houston County, there were 31 drug-related arrests in 2015. Twenty-six of those were felony-level crimes. A further 24 drug-related search warrants were served in the county, with five of those cases involving arrests for methamphetamines, five more arrests for marijuana, and four arrests for prescription drugs.
In total, 163.5 grams of methamphetamines were seized in the county in 2015, with five pounds – and 13 live plants – of marijuana seized.
While drug dealer arrests and the ever-increasing scourge of heroin don’t show up in the statistics, that doesn’t mean that they’re not out there and coming.
In part, the work of the coalition brought up a greater perspective.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” Inglett said.