Drug addiction: A picture of a problem

Austin police snapped this photo after a drug arrest that has since cleared the court system. Police say the suspect was likely crushing the prescription pills and snorting them. They also discovered the prescription was filled just days before the arrest; however, nearly all of the pills were gone — perhaps many used and sold. Photo courtesy of Austin Police Department, illustration by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Drug traffic takes a turn toward heroin use

These may sound like sour, disappointing words out of a police captain’s mouth, or from anyone for that matter, but they are true.

“We understand we are not going to win,” said Dave McKichan, Austin’s police captain.

McKichan is referring to the flow of narcotics. People say anything is possible; stopping the flow of narcotics, though, is not.

Austin High School 11th grade counselor Thor Bergland talks about drug use and teens from his office at AHS Friday.

Talk to nearly anyone on the local drug task force — the team of officers, city officials, counselors and educators trying to prevent drug use. They understand the problem and echo similar words. But the severity of the problem is exactly why these same people are doing something.

Every few years new drugs become popular, or an old one rears its ugly head. In fact, both of those things are happening, right now. And one local drug and alcohol counselor calls them “the most dangerous chemicals a human body can ever take.”


Without hesitation, Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi mentioned heroin when gauging the local drug problem.

Methamphetamines and other drugs are still serious concerns, but heroin is on the rise.

Jack Wittkopp, program director for addiction recovery at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, sees that often.

“We’ve seen a rise over the last probably six months to a year,” Wittkopp said. “And one of the specific reasons is the price. Heroin is cheap. And it’s quite accessible to a younger population.”

That may be hard to stomach, hard to believe and scary. Wittkopp understands how the situation surprises some.

“Didn’t [heroin] kind of pass away?” Wittkopp said others will ask him. But he replies, “Not necessarily. When you make a commodity cheap and effective, anyone will use it, unfortunately.”

The use isn’t evident in arrest records or convictions. Law enforcement officials aren’t making staggering numbers of heroin arrests; in fact, they’re making very few heroin arrests. But they know the problem is there.

“Five years ago, 10 to 20 tips never dealt with heroin,” McKichan said. “Now, one to two of those tips might be a heroin tip.”

Finding the drugs isn’t easy.

He added, “Of the cases we actually make an arrest in, there are probably 10 others where we may know what’s going on but we just don’t have enough to proceed with the case.”

Opiate use in general is increasing. Prescription drugs like oxycodone, officials say, are resurfacing because they’re easy to conceal or get rid of and difficult to identify.

“Heroin and prescription drug use is pretty rampant,” McKichan said. “You do tend to see some overdoses from time to time with heroin and some of the opiates. They’re scary for different reasons.”

Regardless, what is scary about all opiates, counselors say, is how addicting they are.

Battling addiction

Nine out of 10 addicts sit in Wittkopp’s office and hate every minute of it.

“Why? Because they don’t know how to change,” Wittkopp said. “They’re stuck.”

Deep down, though, all of them know why they are there.

“If your world around you, your family, your friends have started to stir up concerns, if law enforcement has given you a ticket or arrested you …”

For some, Wittkopp said, it may seem like change isn’t their choice anymore. Someone once told Wittkopp, “Addiction is isolation to self, and recovery is restoring community.”

When people fall into addiction, they can’t stop because the places they go and the people they know are surrounded by drug use. Addicts need to change the way they perceive their communities as well as surround themselves with different people — people who care and won’t rekindle their drug habits.

As McKichan says, addicts are always looking for something they will never get back: the first, best, highest high.

“You’re constantly chasing the dragon as you are always trying to catch that first high again,” he said.

For those reasons, people aren’t able to return to reality. They need professional help, like Wittkopp.

“You’ve really got to change your entire world,” Wittkopp said. “People have to learn how to refocus their mind and their body together, as well as their community.”

Wittkopp has seen people relapse several times and beat their addictions. He has watched others never beat their addiction — whether heroin, meth or other drugs.

“It’s a long process,” Wittkopp said about therapy.

A new generation of users

What may be good news, according to a youth counselor, is that the older adolescents get without using drugs, the more likely they are to never use or get hooked. However, that counselor has seen the other side of that equation.

“I think it’s more pervasive than people recognize,” Capt. McKichan said about today’s drug use. “I think it’s often surprising some of the people we end up dealing with.”

Austin High School 11th-grade counselor Thor Bergland has been down the road of use and recovery. Perhaps more than anyone, he can attest to McKichan’s comments. Bergland helps youngsters steer clear of drugs — as best he can. It’s not always pretty.

Bergland said if parents knew everything happening in their teens’ lives, “they would be floored by what they encounter.”

While years ago high-schoolers may have drank alcohol or smoked marijuana when nobody was looking, the scene has changed. Kids are open about hard-core drugs, and their peers know what’s happening. Because heroin and prescription drugs are available and cheap, high-schoolers are using them.

“That’s not just supposed to pop up at parties,” Bergland said, noting how the days have changed.

Wittkopp and others have noticed it’s easy for youngsters to steal prescription drugs from home and sell them at school because pills are easy to conceal and throw away.

Furthermore, users are getting younger. All it takes, Bergland says, is for one non-user to see a peer take that pill, smoke that pipe, and see all the others who are OK with that.

“All kids only want to see the glamour of something,” Bergland said. “They don’t want to see the rocking back and forth on the bathroom floor. They don’t want to see the cold sweats.”

Bergland knows that side of the equation is real. And as he mentioned above, the younger users are hooked more easily. Teenagers are already trying to “chase the dragon” — re-reach that highest high. That worries Bergland, a lot.

“When you get to the pinnacle high at that early in your life, you are screwed,” Bergland said. “That should be scary as hell to everybody.”

Making it stop

Bergland, McKichan, Wittkopp and local officials want people to know what happens. They’ve seen the guilt in families and relationships torn apart.

“I’ve had patients tell me it rips their soul away,” Wittkopp said about addiction.

Though the cycle of drugs won’t end, officials hope to prevent as many people as possible from re-using or getting hooked on narcotics. No amount of arrests or drug seizures will ever fix the problem or be an adequate means of gauging success.

For Bergland, it’s all about conversations. The stigma about talking about drug use has always been there, but it starts with parents, he said. And they need to ask.

“Kids actually want to be asked,” Bergland said. “Just talk to them about what goes on.”

Still, some people want to look the other way.

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