Seeing Wisconsin's rural drug addiction crisis through the eyes of a childhood friend in our hometown
It was bone cold, and fog had settled across much of Sauk County. The sheriff’s department SUV wound its way deeper into the winter night. Every now and then an oncoming vehicle passed, a hazy glow emerging from the fog, then disappearing again.
I sat there in the darkness, talking with my childhood friend about drugs.
“Every area has a problem house,” Sauk County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Mueller said at one point as we drove through the night, surrounded by rolling fields and dark woods and the occasional house tucked in against the snow. “There’s no area that’s exempt.”
We had started the evening passing through Plain, a small village in our largely rural home county that is the closest thing to a shared hometown for us. I grew up on a dairy farm east of town, and he grew up over the ridge the other direction. But somehow, as we got deeper into the backroads of our youth — the snow covering the blacktop now, the oncoming cars a strangely distant memory — they felt unrecognizable.
Maybe it was because the drug dealers, the people struggling with substance use disorder, and everyone they affect were still out there in the darkness, becoming more plentiful with each passing mile. This is the rural drug crisis: underground, tangled with the familiar in ways we don’t understand, refusing to let us separate the criminals from the victims. Seemingly sometimes too hidden from view to solve.
The rural drug crisis often seems shrouded in the fog that descends on the rolling Wisconsin countryside, hidden with no clear solutions, and fundamentally different from suburban or urban areas — with no end on the horizon.
In 2022, the Sauk County Sheriff’s Department seized nearly 8,000 grams of drugs, more than it had in any of the past five years, according to an analysis of annual reports. At one time, Detective Scott Steinhorst said the problem was muted, mainly involving cocaine and marijuana, then prescription opioids. Today, according to local and statewide data, it is defined not only by meth — the undisputed dominant scourge of rural Wisconsin — but increasingly by heroin, and an alarming rise in the often-fatal fentanyl, which laces heroin and other substances.
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Each of those stats is someone suffering with substance use disorder, and inexorably intertwined with broader issues of mental health, economic despair, and crime. Steinhorst said much of the crime his team investigates is drug-related in some way: burglary, robbery, violence, and more.
“Quite honestly, it’s an expensive habit,” Steinhorst said. “They turn to the crime obviously to feed that addiction.”
And yet, Steinhorst and the other officers charged with cracking down on the most serious crimes, said addressing the crisis is more complicated than just simply locking people up.
Friendship formed in a tight-knit community, one changing from a hidden scourge
It’s always been a raw feeling, having a friend so close, who you know may not come home from work one day.
Last year, 64 officers were shot and killed in the line of duty, a more than 20 percent increase from a decade ago, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. A 37-year-old police officer in Milwaukee was killed in February responding to a robbery. Kyle will be 38 this month. We met in elementary school, joined the wrestling team together (he was good, I wasn’t), partied in each of our respective college towns, and were best man in each others’ weddings.
On our ridealong nights in December and January, the rural communities we grew up in felt more damaged than when we were kids, or even than they still feel by day. One night, we pulled onto a backroad in the trees and let the squad’s lights go dark — waiting, in the pitch black, for a known drug dealer to return to a house just a few miles from where we went to school.
Kyle is a K-9 officer, often called to locate drugs in our home county, where he raises his own three kids. While many struggling with addiction are not violent, the rural drug epidemic has also left him facing threats on his life, armed standoffs, and hot foot pursuits with his dog, Bear. Recently, Bear found a chunk of heroin the size of a baseball.
But the people tied to these crimes often aren’t hardened criminals. While Steinhorst’s detective unit does target higher-level dealers, most of the dealers law enforcement encounter in tightknit areas like Sauk County are people struggling with addiction and supplying their friends, all of them falling into a dark spiral.
Sometimes, it’s people we know. Driving across the county now, with Bear panting in his cage in the back of the squad, Kyle shared how far it’s gone. A guy we knew growing up who was into drugs and had left an overdosing kid alone outside in broad daylight. A woman we knew as a little girl who was now homeless, cycling from one drug house to another.
This is happening in rural areas nationwide, but Sauk County is an especially accurate microcosm of a state that’s an especially accurate microcosm of the country. Largely rural, it’s still near larger urban areas like Madison, and is home to parts of the Wisconsin Dells tourism area, Ho-Chunk casino, and major highways carrying drugs between Chicago and the Twin Cities.
Sometimes, Kyle said, it’s hard to keep the faith while watching people deteriorate from meth, or spend their last dollar on heroin over a bag of groceries. But then he sees a problem nobody would want — people nodding off while driving after taking hits in moving cars, or slumping to the ground alone in gas station bathrooms.
He asks them if they want help, trying to break through.
Addictions are easier to hide, harder to fix in rural areas
Yvonne Hernandez calls it dying and coming back to life.
She remembers looking at the syringe, and thinking it had too much cocaine in it for her to overdose on the heroin. Instead, when she slid the needle into her arm she fell into a dark sleep. She couldn’t feel the pain of her life, or the high, or her boyfriend jabbing her with Narcan to stop the overdose. She awoke angry, and in pain — Narcan triggers immediate withdrawals.
“Your first thought is ‘Where’s my dope?’” said Hernandez, 52, who has experienced the epidemic in rural areas up north, small southern Wisconsin towns, and Milwaukee where she lives now. “You’re not even thanking God that you’re still alive.”
For Hernandez and others in recovery, such moments — ending either in tragic death or angry awakening —underscore the daily paradox of drug use. All of them, from southern to northern Wisconsin, out in the country to small towns, white or communities of color, good homes or broken ones, said they had needed drugs to get through the day, but wished they didn’t.
Many addictions start small but represent escape from deeper pain. Those who have struggled with it told me about anxiety or other untreated mental health issues, years of abuse, the loss of a path in life. The underlying problem goes unaddressed, and the physical addiction grows—twin forces feeding off of each other until all that matters is getting high. Work, family, friends, passions, and daily responsibilities all fade in favor of drugs.
That addiction has additional extra doses of secrecy, stigma, and solitude in rural communities.
Urban areas deal with the drug trade out on the streets, and have more programs to address it. Suburban areas are more secretive, but also have more programs, and sometimes families that can afford expensive private rehab.
In rural areas, the problem is both hidden and lacking resources, law enforcement, advocates, and those in recovery agree. It festers in flophouses back in the woods and at the end of gravel driveways.
Kyle Schmitz of Oconomowoc said acknowledging the problem and creating pathways toward long-term recovery, even through relapses, is critical. He struggled for years in small-town Wisconsin — stealing copper from homes on the outskirts of town to sell for drug money, and finding drugs through personal connections behind closed doors.
“Out here, you don’t see it,” Schmitz, 34, said.
And when that happens, it fuels other problems we aren’t fully addressing in rural areas. Not only crime, but poverty and eventually homelessness. Sauk County has only one nonprofit homeless shelter.
But there are ways out. Hernandez is in recovery after her son got her into a sober-living facility, and Schmitz got into recovery through drug court. They’re rebuilding relationships with family and finding reasons to live.
Saving a life, sharing a story, acknowledging the fear and pain
The squad plowed through the night, red and blue lights flashing against road signs and mailboxes.
It was December, and we had been circling a parking lot in Baraboo when Deputy Kyle Mueller heard a call about someone standing on the edge of a bridge. Now we were driving through the night, down the highway then onto the backroads. Kyle is also a crisis negotiator, and somewhere in the madness—the squad careening over the hills, Kyle talking into the radio, the stilted phrases coming back in a torrent — I realized I was watching my friend working to save a life.
We arrived on scene and officers coaxed the person off the bridge. But the adrenaline still hummed in the squad as we rolled back toward the outskirts of town, and we talked with the kind of feeling we usually only find after too many beers.
We pulled over in a slumping parking lot where Kyle once fought for his life. He told me the story in a way I hadn’t heard it: How he joined his partner to pull a suspected drug dealer out of a car. How the man broke free, both of them seeing the size of the knife under his coat.
They both tried to tase him, the safe alternative they saw to a fistfight or a shooting, but the man flipped Kyle’s partner over him and went for his gun. Finally Kyle successfully tased the man and helped wrestle him to the ground. Later a woman who had been riding in the man’s car overdosed, and officers had to revive her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said of the days after the fight. “I ran through the scenario a lot in my head. What could I have done different. … What if he had gotten his gun? All that crazy shit.”
Deeper conversations needed to bridge divide, get at truth
I realized in the dark of this cold winter night, hearing my friend understand people struggling with drugs even after fighting for his life against one, the truth about Wisconsin’s drug epidemic: Solving our drug problem requires not just understanding what’s happening here, in Sauk County, but reaching across every divide we have.
To solve this problem — to marshal the new ideas and resources needed—we need the kind of radical understanding that can withstand the ugly moments. It’s too deadly of a problem to look away, as we have done for far too long, or let it harden us into the divisions that so easily arise personally, regionally, or politically.
The cop has to understand the drug user’s struggle, the drug user the cop’s job of enforcing the law, and so on from parents to kids, politicians, inner-city residents and rural alike. Nonprofits, the private sector, and government all play a role, locally as well as statewide and nationally. No one side of this battle can do it alone, or divided.
Maybe, with that level of understanding from all those corners, we can find solutions.
Kyle’s squad rolled out of that fateful parking lot as I thought about what we could do, headlights shining across the dark highway toward home.
Brian Reisinger is a writer who grew up on a family farm in Sauk County. He contributes in-depth columns and videos for the Ideas Lab at the Journal Sentinel. Reisinger has written for a wide range of publications and tells the hidden stories of rural America, including the drug crisis, past and future of Wisconsin farmers and adventures in the outdoors. Reisinger works in public affairs consulting for Wisconsin-based Platform Communications. He splits his time between a small town in northern California near his wife’s family, and his family’s farm here in Wisconsin. Reisinger studied journalism and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Seven Hills Review literary magazine, Wisconsin Newspaper Association, and more.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin's rural drug problem grows, tougher to fix than other places