Ashland County residents swallowed more than 4.5 million prescription pain pills between 2006 and 2012 — an average of 40 per year for every man, woman and child in the county.
Bayfield County residents, by comparison, consumed 443,980 pills, or four per person each year.
The figures, compiled by the Washington Post using a Drug Enforcement Agency database, put in black-and-white terms for the first time the breadth and depth of one aspect of the region's drug epidemic.
The pills all were legally prescribed by doctors — the database includes no information about counterfeit drugs sold illicitly outside pharmacies — though experts say many of those prescription drugs wind up on the street.
Two pharmacies in Ashland County were responsible for dispensing almost half the pills, according to the database: Walmart sold 1.2 million pills, and the Medicine Shoppe sold just under 1 million. The database does not identify the doctors who ordered the prescriptions.
All those pills are costing the region millions of dollars — in increased health care costs, corrections expenses and general human services, local experts said.
Regina Fox is an AODA therapist at Ashland's Northlakes Clinic and director of the recovery program there, and she gasped aloud when she heard the figure.
"It's just that number is so big," she said. "It's crazy that it's that many in Ashland County alone, that we've swallowed that many pills and that that many physicians were willing to prescribe that many pills."
Fox said she doesn't routinely see addicts who started by using legally prescribed pills; more often they began
by abusing alcohol or other drugs and then worked their way up to opioids.
Often, they abuse prescription pills that have been legally prescribed by doctors or dentists and then sold or stolen.
"Unless you live under a rock, you know about this problem," Fox said. "That's what floors me. A lot of these physicians are so worried about lawsuits that they don't think about what's in the best interest of the patient in front of them. They just write another prescription."
The overwhelming majority of pain pills prescribed were oxycodone or hydrocodone, highly-addictive opioids that fueled the epidemic that grips not just the Northwoods but the entire country. Nearly 100,000 people have died of overdoses during the seven years included in the database, during which more than 76 billion pills were distributed across the country.
"This absolutely is having a ripple effect in our community," Ashland County Drug Court Coordinator Anne Whiting said. "Whether it's legally obtained prescription drugs, illegally obtained prescriptions, or heroin and other drugs, it's affecting our community. We see it right now, when we have parents who are using drugs and getting their kids ready for school. That affects their entire day. How can that child learn during the day? Are the parents going to work? Are they even able to hold down a job? It has a big impact on the community."
The Post gained access to the data after a yearlong court battle; both the federal government and drug industry fought to keep the information from journalists.
If there's any good news, it's that painkillers on Ashland's streets are getting harder to find and more expensive, Fox said.
"I'd like to say that's because more doctors aren't prescribing it and they're more monitored now," she said. "I'll be honest: We see more meth than we see prescription pills today. That's not to say they aren't still a problem."
The other problem: Addicts who can't get pills often turn to their close opiate relative, heroin.
And the deaths from opioids continue. According to the University of Chicago's Walsh Center for Rural Health, Ashland County suffered 12 fatal overdoses between 2013 and 2017, a rate of 23.9 per 100,000 population. That's well over the U.S. rate of 25.1 per 100,000 people and the Wisconsin average of 25 per 100,000.
Only Douglas County, at an average of 43 pills per person, per year exceeded Ashland County in our region. Iron County averaged 25 per person; Price County 30 per person; Sawyer County 39 per person and Washburn County, 35 per person.
Some counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama consumed more than 150 pills per person each year.
Charleston County, S.C., led the nation at 248 pills per person, per year.
Vincent Mattson says he is being constantly harassed by Enbridge Energy workers who want access to his town of Ashland land to survey a possible rerouting of the Enbridge Line 5 petroleum pipeline.
He has repeatedly told the company that he doesn't want its workers on his land, but that hasn't stopped them from nagging him, he said.
"They say things like 'I really don't think you really have a choice,' and they say 'everyone around you has already signed,'" he said.
Mattson said they have also harassed his son, who likewise refused them permission to enter the land.
"They are calling every day, sending me Fed Ex letters with papers to sign. But I just don't want them on my property. I have property right on the Brunsweiler River. It's nice property and I don't want it ruined," he said.
The surveys are necessary because Enbridge is researching a new route for its pipeline that carries 540,000 barrels of oil and gas a day from Duluth across the Northland and Upper Peninsula before turning south and ending in Ontario.
The proposed route would bypass land owned by the Bad River Band, which is suing Enbridge to get the pipeline off its reservation. Enbridge Energy right-of-way agent Paul Halverson said the proposed reroute would take the
pipeline off tribal lands and reroute it south around the reservation before again heading to the U.P.
The tribe has said the underground pipeline, which in some places has been exposed by erosion, threatens the reservation's water and environment should it rupture.
Mattson was among a crowd of a few dozen people that packed the meeting room at the Mellen Senior Center Thursday for a City Council meeting that featured a presentation by Halverson. Halvorson said he was there solely to seek permission for the company to enter four parcels of city-owned property as part of surveys on a 40-mile corridor to evaluate the possibility of replacing the part of Line 5 that crosses Bad River land. He said the surveys were a preliminary first step and that no engineering work or plans for seeking easements are in place.
A letter circulated by Enbridge to property owners along the proposed new route said surveys are being done near the intersection of Highways 137 and 112 in Ashland County, extending approximately to the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 169 in Iron County.
"This corridor was chosen because it utilizes existing rights-of-way and we believe likely has the fewest impacts to communities and the environment," the letter said, indicating that other alternative routes will be examined as the process moves forward.
Although Halverson said the sole purpose of his appearance before the City Council was to get permission for survey crews to enter property owned by Mellen, members of the audience grilled him over a variety of pipeline-related issues.
Red Cliff tribal member Weniposhtaabe said the survey contemplated relocating the pipeline outside the reservation but within the same watershed threatened by the existing pipeline. She presented the City Council with a resolution passed by the Red Cliff Tribal Council supporting Bad River and calling for "going to any length to keep Enbridge out of ceded territory."
Other speakers challenged Enbridge's safety record. One said Line 5 had a total of 33 spills since 1968. Another challenged the notion of rerouting the pipeline through Mellen, saying it had the potential to contaminate the city's aquifer.
"This is not a safe thing for the city of Mellen," he said. "Those pipelines were not meant to be brought into communities and run through the community."
Others said that a portion of the pipeline exposed on the reservation at Denomie Creek by erosion represented a grave threat.
Among those opposed to the survey and the idea of rerouting the pipeline is Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins. He was not at the meeting but has previously warned against granting requests to perform surveys requested by Enbridge on private land outside the reservation.
"I have stomach-churning experience with multiple energy companies that started this way and ended by getting the state to condemn property for their right-of-way," he said in a recent Facebook post. "They are the tip of the spear. Once a property owner agrees to what seems like an innocuous request to do a survey, the company has permission to trespass on one's property. It is almost impossible to keep the company off once permission has been granted for a survey."
Others were less firmly opposed. Mellen resident Martin Vitek said he was largely interested in getting information about the survey, saying that Enbridge had contacted him about going on his property.
"I'm pretty skeptical, to be honest, but I am willing to listen," he said.
Vitek said he had no real objection to the survey itself.
"But if you want to do something, that's something else," he said.
Vitek said he recognized the need for oil, but said there was a necessary balancing act between that need and environmental protection.
Mellen Mayor Joe Barabe was hostile to the request to enter city property.
"If we don't want you in the first place, why would we even give you permission?" he asked.
Barabe later invited the council to reject the request, but the council instead took no action on the matter.
Meanwhile, Halverson said Enbridge personnel are already on the ground in some areas of Ashland County conducting the survey.
The 43-year-old construction worker hit by an SUV while directing traffic Aug. 26 is beginning rehab after suffering a shattered pelvis, six broken ribs and a collapsed lung, among other injuries.
Vickie Williams has been moved out of the neuro-intensive care unit at Essentia-St. Mary's Health Center in Duluth after undergoing two substantial surgeries to repair her pelvis, and she will remain in the hospital's orthopedic unit until she is able to move to a rehabilitation facility before she can come home.
At her side since shortly after the crash has been her fiance Joe Nelis, who like Williams works on a road construction crew. He left his job site near Eau Claire as soon as he heard of William's injuries.
"You fear the worst. I didn't know the extent of her injuries; nobody had any real information. When they told me she was taken to Ashland and then right away to Duluth, I told my boss I had to leave," Nelis said.
While Nelis said the recovery of his fiance is his first concern, he also is angry about the circumstances of the crash. Nelis said Williams remembers nothing about being hit by the SUV, only that she had relieved another worker who was going on a break shortly before she was struck.
The driver of the SUV, 77-year-old Gerald Robertson of Mason, drove on the shoulder of the road to bypass a number of cars and trucks stopped for the construction zone on Sanborn Avenue and then re-entered the road and hit Williams, according to police.
Robertson was interviewed by Ashland Police after the crash and then released. He remains free pending the results of the investigation, and no charges have yet been filed.
"Of course there is some anger," said Nelis. "But I've also been told that he is an elderly man. I don't know if there is a medical reason that he should not have been driving, I don't know if he was impaired. But there is resentment, there is anger. This should never have happened."
Expenses add up
As justice works its slow course resolving questions about the crash, Nelis has to deal with its practical consequences. The cost of not working and having to stay in Duluth has begun to add up for Nelis, and although friends have paid for several days of motel stays, he still needs help.
"It's a hard thing for anyone," he said. "But I didn't want her to be here by herself."
Nelis' sister Gina Secord has established a GoFundMe site to raise money for the couple, not just to allow Nelis to remain with Williams as she recovers, but to help make their home handicapped-accessible when she finally does return. As of Thursday morning, the site had been up for about 36 hours and had raised $1,450 of a hoped for $20,000. It can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/injured-femaleflagger-in-ashland.
Secord said the site was initiated more or less by popular demand.
"People were asking 'how can we help?' There has been an outpouring of support from people on the Ashland Crime Wave Facebook site and people in the local community wanting to know how she is doing," Secord said.
Secord said it's critically important that they raise enough to adapt the couple's home — is a mobile home with high steps that will require a ramp for Williams to enter and exit.
"They don't have that kind of pocket change," she said.
Funds are also needed for Williams' mother to visit from her home in Watersmeet, Mich.
Secord said the outpouring of donations, well wishes and prayers has been "very humbling." Another fundraiser is in the early stages of being organized at the Bad River Indian Reservation, and details will be made public once they are firmed up.
Williams this week was doing about as well as could be expected; Secord is convinced she will persevere.
"She is a very tough lady. You don't want to mess around with her," she said.
Nelis said that Williams has been able to sit up in her hospital bed but that's just the first step in a long recovery process.
"For me, that was a great start," he said. Her next few weeks and months will be a series of small landmarks — using a board to slide into a chair, making it to the bathroom. "Those are going to be major deals."
Nelis said he isn't the kind of person who looks for a handout, but admitted the issues he and Williams face are daunting. He said at least the convalescence of perhaps two months gives him some time to prepare the home for her return.
"It's going to be a very long, time-consuming process," he said. "We are starting the rehabilitation and recovery mode."
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