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Lawmakers Look to Tackle Heroin and Opioid Epidemic in Wisconsin

Wisocnsin Department of Justice
Lawmakers say heroin addiction is one of the biggest public health problems facing the state

The rate of heroin use in Wisconsin has hit epidemic levels. In 2016, more people died in Wisconsin from overdosing on opioids than in car accidents.

Last Thursday, Gov. Walker announced a special session of the Legislature to tackle the problem. He also told the state Department of Health Services to apply for federal funding through a program called the 21st Century Cures Act. Some leaders call the heroin epidemic the worst drug public health crisis facing the country, not just Wisconsin.  

“A lot of it’s about treatment. A fair amount of it is about giving families, in particular, who often feel hopeless more tools to help them. Particularly if their family members are initially fighting,” Walker says.

Walker will call legislators into a special session to take up a number of bills. One would allow K12 personnel to administer drugs on school property that counter act opioid overdose.

Another would create a recovery school where kids could attend high school classes and receive drug treatment. It’s probably not enough, according to Robert Kraig of the group Citizen Action Wisconsin.

“But you need to spend a great deal more money and cover a whole lot more young people in high schools across the state of Wisconsin than Governor Walker is currently proposing,” Kraig says.

Kraig say he favors a plan that Democratic Senator LaTonya Johnson put forth. It would screen every public high schooler to ensure they were not using opioids or heroin. If they are, the state would offer treatment.

Ian Powell says the problem is a tough one to kick. Powell is a doctor at Rogers Memorial. He says people who try heroin have about a one in three chance of becoming addicted, but many don’t think they will.

“It could be that the perception of dangerousness among new initiates is not high enough to deter people,” Powell says.

Another danger, Powell says, is the fact that the heroin found on the streets these days is much more potent than the drug that appeared here in the 1970s, so people don’t have to shoot-up as they did decades ago.

“These days, the heroin supply is fairly potent so the less effective administration route such as nasal inhalation or smoking it are fairly effective,” Powell says.

Powell says that because some people are choosing not to inject, they think they’re safe from blood born infections, but there are still grave dangers.

“You can make bad decision that lead to having sex without any sort of protection, people get into prostitution sometimes. You know, it’s not necessarily the type of prostitution that we stereotype as someone out on the street, but you know, the casual exchange of sex for drugs. And as well if you do share straws or whatever device you’re using for nasal inhalation, you could transmit Hepatitis C that way as well,” Powell says.  

Powell says what would help him in treating people addicted to heroin is easier access to drugs that ease the symptoms of withdrawal. He also says Wisconsin needs more treatment programs, so they’re available throughout the state.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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