Oconto County departments resume collaborative fight against drug abuse

Meth, heroin, fentanyl, high-grade marijuana pose the biggest threats, they say
Mike Reimer, director of Health and Human Services for Oconto County, describes meth as “a terrible, terrible substance” during his annual report to the county board on April 22.
Warren Bluhm | NEW Media
Warren Bluhm

With COVID-19 numbers more or less under control and vaccinations available to anyone who wants them, a collaborative effort between the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office and the county Health and Human Services Department to make a dent in the rising illegal drug problem is finally being taken off “pause.”

Heads of the county’s biggest departments delivered their annual reports to the county board on April 22, and the director of Oconto County Health and Human Services says the county stands at “the beginning of the post-pandemic phase,” transitioning from dealing with the COVID-19 crisis to dealing with its impact on mental health and other social issues.

“The damage that has occurred to the county is significant. There are issues with mental illness, issues with drug abuse,” said Mike Reimer, Health and Human Services director. “We had our windstorm a couple years ago; we had to react to the windstorm and then we had to clean up the damage. It’s a similar issue in terms of the social issues with the pandemic.”

Reimer and then-newly elected Sheriff Todd Skarban worked out a plan in late 2019 to help drug-addicted jail inmates prepare for treatment after their release, along with other efforts to tackle drug abuse. The county allocated $141,000 in the 2020 budget to develop those services.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the effort on hold, but Reimer said the departments are totally committed to making it work now.

“We have a sheriff who refuses to lose, and we have staff that are very talented and united in our approach to battle this methamphetamine crisis that we’re having,” he said. “I don’t want to go into the gory details of what your employees actually have to see in these situations, but you may trust that it’s truly horrific.”

The effects of methamphetamine addiction are taking a toll on its victims, their loved ones and the community at large, Reimer said.

“This is a terrible, terrible substance, and when people are getting addicted to it, they have to be forced off of it. They cannot stop on their own in almost every situation. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it,” he said.

“The good news is methamphetamine use is down,” District Attorney Edward Burke said during his own annual report. “The bad news is now we’ve got heroin on the rise.”

Skarban and Burke said the county had seen as many as four overdose deaths in the previous three weeks, adding that one person was charged with first-degree reckless homicide for providing the substance and may be charged in connection with one or more of the other deaths.

The sheriff said testing for meth often comes out positive for the deadly chemical fentanyl as well.

Although the governor and a number of other politicians have called for legalization of recreational marijuana, Skarban expressed a need for caution because of the higher potency of the product now on the streets and dealers who blend it with other substances.

He cited an incident in Florence County, which had a drug-sniffing dog he said had not been trained to alert on marijuana because it might soon be legalized. But the dog did respond to a batch of high-grade marijuana, and the seized material tested positive for methamphetamine laced inside.

“That’s what we’re up against; they’re blending these substances,” Skarban said.

The sheriff talked about people who were arrested for possession of marijuana exhibiting “strange” behavior unlike any he has seen in more than 25 years as a law officer.

“When you have people acting in a certain way and it’s really odd, and it’s only because of marijuana consumption — because everybody’s cool with legalizing it now, right? I sure as hell am not,” Skarban said. “I watch these people on this high-level THC concentration in this stuff trying to chew on lugnuts? ‘But it’s only weed, it’s harmless.’”