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Marathon County begins campaign to deal with growing heroin problem

WAUSAU, WI (WTAQ) - Remember when heroin was just a big city problem?

Not anymore. Marathon County sheriff’s official Gary Schneck says heroin use in the Wausau area has jumped rapidly in the last three years, and it started when drug makers added time-release coatings to painkillers like oxycontin to cut down on their abuse.

That’s just part of Marathon County’s drug problem, and officials started a campaign Tuesday called “Push Back Against Drug Abuse.” It seeks to educate people of how dangerous drugs are, and how they affect the community.

Schneck says Wausau is now a hub for dealers who import drugs to northern Wisconsin. He says Mexican cartels are trafficking drugs from the Twin Cities into Wausau, with very high profit margins.

Deb Piskoty of Aspirus Wausau Hospital says dealers often dilute drugs with poisonous substances, and even more health problems are created when addicts share their dirty injection needles.

In Wausau alone, Police Chief Jeff Hardel said his officers handled 79 heroin-related incidents in the last year-and-a-half. He said drugs were also tied to a pair of gun store burglaries linked to three homicides and numerous other crimes – one as far away as California.

Marathon County Medical Examiner John Larson said three people have died this year from drug overdoses, with a high of 8 in 2011.

Assistant district attorney Lance Leonhard said his office had to create a full-time drug prosecutor – and with the state’s budget crunch, it puts a strain on his staff. Melissa Dotter, who coordinates the local Drug Free Communities program, says people have no idea how many are struggling with drug problems as their struggles often go unreported.