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This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center 
Wisconsin Drug Threat Assessment
May 2001


Map of Wisconsin showing major highways and the cities they pass through.

Wisconsin is the twelfth largest manufacturing state in the nation. The northern forest and lake country is sparsely settled, the southern two-thirds is agricultural, and the southeastern belt along Lake Michigan is highly industrialized. Major transportation routes around Milwaukee serve the state's heavily populated southeastern section and connect to Chicago, Illinois, 90 miles to the south.

Fast Facts

Population (1999) 5.3 million
U.S. population ranking 18th
Median household income (1999) $41,327
Unemployment rate (2000) 3.4%
Land area 54,314 square miles
Shoreline 820 miles
Capital Madison
Other principal cities Milwaukee, Green Bay
Number of counties 72
Principal industries Agriculture, manufacturing, tourism

Milwaukee is the seventeenth largest city in the United States. Its importance as a leading transportation hub and distribution center for legitimate goods mirrors its position in the drug trade. In part because of its geographic location and multifaceted transportation infrastructure, Milwaukee is the strategic center for the transportation and distribution of drugs in Wisconsin.

The most common means that transporters use to ship drugs into Milwaukee are private and rental vehicles, commercial trucks, package delivery services, air package services or couriers on commercial flights, and railways. Drugs transported by vehicles, concealed in shipments of legitimate goods, or shipped via mail or package services have an excellent chance of reaching their destination because of the sheer volume of vehicles, parcels, and railcars that transit the state on a daily basis. Milwaukee is an important center for processing land freight. More than 50 commercial truck carriers and a variety of independent trucking firms operate from Milwaukee. These firms could provide drug trafficking organizations with ready access to the eastern part of the country as well as to Canada and Mexico.

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Milwaukee's interconnected highway system facilitates the transport of drugs into Wisconsin, not only from the Southwest Border of the United States but also from the East and West Coasts. Milwaukee and suburban Milwaukee County are located at the intersections of Interstates 94 and 43. These interstates link Milwaukee directly to Chicago, Illinois, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which are source cities for drugs and weapons in Milwaukee. Drugs, money, and weapons are transported frequently between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Milwaukee as well as between Chicago and Milwaukee. Milwaukee is linked to the rest of Wisconsin by the interstate system. Interstate 94 west from Milwaukee connects to Madison, the state capital. Continuing west, Interstate 94 connects with Interstate 90 to La Crosse in western Wisconsin or to Eau Claire in the northwestern part of the state. West of Madison, Interstate 94 connects with Interstate 39 north to Wisconsin's lake resort area. Interstate 43 north of Milwaukee connects to the major industrial cities on the western shore of Lake Michigan and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport is a connector airport to major hubs around the country. It is a port of entry for flights directly from Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Mexico. Airfreight is shipped through General Mitchell International Airport on the many commercial airlines, package carriers, and smaller freight haulers. Cocaine, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and marijuana have been transported in the large amounts of airfreight shipped daily through this airport. The Milwaukee High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) reports that more than 200 kilograms of marijuana and more than 20 kilograms of cocaine were seized there during 1999. Metropolitan Milwaukee also has numerous private and regional small and midsize airports that serve as transportation centers for private and commercial use.

The Port of Milwaukee is another possible entry point for drugs into Wisconsin. Drugs could be secreted easily among the tons of legitimate cargo processed through the Port of Milwaukee. The Port of Milwaukee is the second largest port on Lake Michigan and is open to shipping from April through December. Most of the cargo vessels arriving in Milwaukee carry steel from France, Germany, the Netherlands (a major source of MDMA, also known as ecstasy), and Great Britain. Canadian shipments normally consist of road salt from Ontario and pig iron from Quebec.

Milwaukee is the focal point for the delivery and transshipment of drugs throughout Wisconsin. Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) ship most of the cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine into the state, and their strong foothold in Wisconsin, primarily in Milwaukee, will allow them to continue operations. Jamaican, Nigerian, and Dominican criminal groups as well as Chicago-based street gangs are secondary transporters, predominantly into the Milwaukee area.

Madison is a secondary distribution center for the state, primarily to cities in central and western Wisconsin such as Appleton, Beloit, Eau Claire, and Wausau. Madison is Wisconsin's capital and home to the University of Wisconsin with over 40,000 students. I-90, a major east-west route connecting directly with Chicago and ending in Seattle, Washington, as well as State Route 151, which connects to I-80, pass through Madison, providing DTOs easy access to the city as well as other areas of the state.

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African American and Hispanic street gangs, particularly organized street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Latin Kings, dominate the street-level distribution of most drugs, particularly crack cocaine. According to a 1999 Wisconsin Division of Narcotics Enforcement (DNE) report, the Gangster Disciples distributes drugs in 22 Wisconsin counties, the Latin Kings in 19, and the Vice Lords in 11. These gangs survive financially through the sale and distribution of drugs. Most federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin cite the violent crime associated with gang-related drug distribution as a serious criminal threat to the state. Violent crime associated with these street gangs is increasing in suburban and rural areas as they expand to other markets.

The Gangster Disciples, the largest Chicago-based street gang, has been identified in over 40 states across the nation. In Wisconsin, the gang sells drugs primarily in low-income urban areas. Most Gangster Disciples members are African American. Most of the Gangster Disciples gangs operating in Wisconsin were locally organized and took the name of the national organization to increase profits and intimidate other gangs. They do not pay dues to Chicago and are not recognized as part of the Gangster Disciple Nation by the national gangs. Their drug sources are primarily through Chicago, but not necessarily from the Gangster Disciples; they will buy drugs from any source available.

The Vice Lords in Wisconsin is essentially a local drug dealing organization and is not affiliated with the Vice Lords national organization in Chicago. The Vice Lords in Milwaukee is one of the African American gangs that controls the north side of the city. It receives its drug supply primarily through Chicago, but not necessarily from the Vice Lords; members will buy drugs from any source available.

The Latin Kings, also known as the Almighty Latin King Nation, is a predominantly Hispanic street gang. It is made up of over 70 factions that operate under an overall leadership structure. Members have expanded their drug trafficking throughout the state and nation.

Gang-related violence in Wisconsin has risen over the past 10 years, which can be attributed in part to the rise in gang-related drug distribution throughout the state. A 1999 Wisconsin DNE report shows that 60 percent of reporting units indicated that gangs operating in their jurisdictions are involved in drug trafficking. Another 1999 Wisconsin DNE report states that 59 percent of Wisconsin's single and multicounty areas reported that gangs distribute drugs in their areas. A Wisconsin Statistical Analysis Center report noted that juvenile arrests for drug offenses steadily increased from 1990 to 1995, when they accounted for 22 percent of all drug violation arrests. According to a 1999 University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee study, 68 percent of juveniles involved in gang-related homicides sold drugs. Wisconsin local law enforcement agencies report that gangs are involved in assaults on law enforcement personnel and in homicides, drive-by shootings, carjackings, home invasion robberies, and weapons trafficking. The homicide rate in Milwaukee rose 16 percent (107 to 124) from 1998 to 1999, when approximately 85 percent of the homicides were attributed to gangs and drugs. So far, figures indicate that Milwaukee's homicide rate in 2000 was on pace with 1999. Gun seizures from gang members in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs have increased markedly. Many of these guns are either stolen or obtained through straw purchases (a "front man" buys the weapons and transfers them illegally to an individual or group).

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The nature of the drug problem in Wisconsin varies by area. The primary drug threats in eastern and central Wisconsin are the availability, distribution, and abuse of powdered and crack cocaine. The increasing availability of high-purity heroin and the number of new users represent a secondary problem, particularly in the Milwaukee area. Marijuana remains the most readily available and most widely abused drug throughout Wisconsin. Methamphetamine production and use are expanding from the neighboring states of Iowa and Minnesota into northwestern and southwestern Wisconsin. Drugs such as MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), LSD, and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among young people in urban areas and in college towns.

Drug abuse is a significant health, social, public safety, and economic problem in Wisconsin. State sources estimate that there are 390,000 drug abusers in Wisconsin and that more than 60,000 residents received publicly funded treatment for drug abuse in 1998. Statewide prison statistics show that 67 percent of new inmates between 1997 and 1998 were identified as needing drug treatment. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections indicated that this number varies between 60 and 80 percent of new inmates from year to year.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services, substance abuse is the fourth leading cause of death in Wisconsin after heart disease, cancer, and stroke. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services indicates a significant increase in drug abuse poisoning and dependency deaths from 1975 to 1997. More than 800 documented deaths and more than 90,000 arrests attributable to drug abuse were reported in Wisconsin in 1998.

Table 1. Milwaukee Area Drug Availability and Trends in Abuse

Drug Availability Abuse
Cocaine High High
Depressants Low Decreasing
Designer Drugs Low Increasing
Heroin Medium Increasing
LSD Low Increasing
Marijuana High Increasing
Methamphetamine Medium Increasing

   Source: Milwaukee HIDTA.

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The social costs associated with drug abuse in Wisconsin are significant. The state spent an estimated $2.7 billion to fight drug abuse and ancillary problems in 1997, of which almost 70 percent ($1.89 billion) was spent fighting crime. Medical- and death-related costs, as well as consequent lost productivity, accounted for the remaining $.81 billion. Drug abuse also contributes to AIDS/HIV transmission, birth defects, and the number of people seeking assistance from emergency departments and other medical providers. Fifty-six percent of these costs are borne by the government, private insurance, and victims of drug-related crime, while 44 percent of the burden falls on abusers and their families.

Young people in Wisconsin continue to face pressure from their peers to use drugs, and children often are affected indirectly by drug use. In 1999, 19 percent of young adults and 12 percent of teens reported using drugs within the past 30 days. One Milwaukee inner-city hospital estimates that approximately one-third of its pregnant patients test positive for drugs.

Chart 1. Drug Abuse Deaths, Wisconsin, 1975-1997

Chart showing Wisconsin drug abuse deaths for the years 1975 through 1997.

Source: Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, Wisconsin Alcohol and Drug Abuse Indicator Trends, 1997.

Drug arrests have increased substantially, indicating a rise in crime and drug abuse throughout Wisconsin. From 1986 to 1998, Wisconsin's total drug arrests rose approximately 220 percent. For the period 1995 to 1998, drug sales arrests increased by 7.6 percent and drug possession arrests increased by 52.3 percent.

Chart 2. Drug Arrests, Wisconsin, 1986-1998

Graph showing drug arrests in the state of Wisconsin for the years 1986 through 1998.
Source: Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, 1997-1999 Anti-Drug Abuse Strategy.

A 1999 Wisconsin DNE price survey based on controlled buys, undercover purchases, and on information provided by informants indicates that prices for powdered and crack cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine dropped or stabilized over the previous 5 years, an indication that these predominant drugs in Wisconsin continue to be readily available.


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