Many heroin users try to stop, but find they cannot free themselves from the hold the drug has on them.
The illegal drug eventually kills many. It took 199 lives in Wisconsin last year. Yet some people are able to beat it, including those who were addicted for years. Kyle Barney of Milwaukee used heroin for five years. He says he turned to crime to pay for his habit.
“It was just me and the people I was using with. We didn’t care how we had to get money, how we got our drugs, we were going to get it. We would roll over anybody to do it. Just doing things that I never imagined that I would be doing,” Barney says.
Eventually, police arrested the 28-year-old for possessing heroin, a felony. Prosecutors offered to drop the charge, if he went to therapy, had clean drug tests and performed community service. He didn’t follow through and instead, kept using. The courts put out a warrant, and police arrested him again.
“I was caught stealing from a Pick’n Save, so I was taken downtown and got put in jail for that -- for the warrant that I had for the felony possession charge -- and I sat in jail for about 40 days, and then drug court was offered to me,” Barney says.
Milwaukee County’s Drug Treatment Court is for nonviolent offenders. It puts them under intensive supervision for more than a year and provides services. At first, Barney wasn’t interested.
“But on a good judgment call, you know, maybe not through my own real decision, like, intervention of a higher power, probably, I decided to take the drug treatment court,” Barney says.
Judge Ellen Brostrom presides over the court. She says caseworkers determine whether participants need mental health services or housing, and get them into drug treatment. Sometimes the person needs detox, with medication to ease heroin’s notorious withdrawal symptoms.
“Basically, the beginning process, Phase 1, is just designed to get them sober, to get them clean,” Brostrom says.
Brostrom says at first, participants face random drug tests and a court appearance every week.
“The longer they get into the process, the more, then, is asked of them. Many times they need to get a job, many of them owe restitution, because theft is often one of the crimes that is involved these proceedings. They need to establish stable housing, independently. Some of them have literacy needs, some of them need job training,” Brostrom says.
People who abuse any kind of drug may be eligible for the program. But Brostrom says about half end up there because they have problems with heroin. That requires the court to take special precautions with those participants.
“I think there’s no other drug that matches the danger level of heroin to overdose, and we’re always aware of that. We do our best to keep people off the streets if it appears that they are in active relapse,” Brostrom says.
If participants complete the program, the court dismisses the charges or reduces them. To celebrate, the program holds a commencement ceremony, with the judge, attorneys, family and friends. At a recent ceremony in the Safety Building, participants gave speeches, and got diplomas and an inspirational poster.
Kyle Barney was there to congratulate them. He says treatment court worked for him. He’s been sober since February of last year. Barney says the most beneficial move he made was connecting with a 12 step group.
“The biggest thing is seeing people that are doing it, and for me, I had been there 4-5 years before that, and coming back and seeing the same people still sober, still clean, living better lives,” Barney says.
“You go to a group, you find out, ‘I’m not the only person who feels this way,’” says Tim McElroy, a substance abuse counselor at Columbia St. Mary's.
“Most addicts feel terribly alone, and they hear that other people have had the same thoughts that they’ve had, and they see other people experiencing success, and it’s inspirational to them,” McElroy says.
McElroy says people who want to recover from heroin addiction must commit to doing the work. It involves more than avoiding the drug.
“You still have to make the changes in the person, so that they can support ongoing recovery -- behavior changes and lifestyle changes. You’ve got to find new people, support systems, develop coping skills,” McElroy says.
McElroy says Milwaukee has enough counselors to work with people fighting heroin addiction, but lacks treatment for the physical symptoms. He says too few doctors are certified to prescribe the drug that reduces the nausea, stomach cramps and restlessness of withdrawal.
Others we talked with say despite their promise, there aren’t enough residential treatment programs, and funding for drug courts is tenuous.