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Lawmakers address heroin, meth epidemic in Wisconsin

Rep. John Nygren (left) and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (right) stand with Gov. Walker at the Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay. Nygren and Kleefisch are the co-heads of Walker's opioid abuse task force. (Photo courtesy of Rep. John Nygren's Office)

With issues stemming from meth and heroin abuse becoming more prevalent in Wisconsin, lawmakers have turned their attention to fighting addiction and drug abuse.

In 2015, Gov. Scott Walker asked a special task force to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic in Wisconsin. Republican Rep. John Nygren and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch are the co-heads of the taskforce.

Lt. Gov. Rebecca KleefischKleefisch stressed its importance, citing the vast number of demographics involved with heroin abuse.

“This task force, upon the request of the Governor (Walker) is really a wonderful idea to assure public policy solutions for a crisis that clearly is very, very harmful, not for one specific region, not one specific demographic, but all across Wisconsin,” Kleefisch said.

In 2013, the Heroin, Opioid, Prevention, and Education (HOPE) Agenda, a legislative effort to combat the state’s heroin epidemic, was formed.

HOPE has made things like Naloxone (used in reversing the effects of an overdose) available for purchase without a prescription, but one of the biggest contributions has been the Prescription Drug Monitoring Problem.

Rep. John NygrenNygren said an increase in heroin and opioid addictions can be traced to a surge of doctors over-prescribing opioids and painkillers.   

“Eighty percent of opioid abusers start with prescription drugs,” Nygren said.

After beginning PDMP in 2015, there was a 10 percent decrease in opioids prescribed in one year.

Through the PDMP, Kleefisch said doctors can track patients’ records with opioids and painkillers much more easily.

“We think it will help figure out who has a legitimate concern, who is pill shopping, and who might potentially be someone from another state theoretically who may be looking here for prescriptions in Wisconsin,” Kleefisch said.

The United States is home to 4.6 percent of the world’s population but prescribes upwards of 80 percent of the world's opioids, Kleefisch added.

The task force invited a doctor from India to speak about his country’s approach to pain management and prescribing medications. Kleefisch thought his perspective was “fascinating.”

“He said in India ‘we don’t have chronic pain,’” Kleefisch said. “We have tons of people who experience pain but they haven’t labeled it a disorder and don’t have the prescribing tactics that we have over the last two decades here in the United States.”

On Jan. 5, Gov. Walker called a special session to sign three executive orders into legislation that pertain to heroin and opioid abuse.

Executive orders 228, 229, and 230 address the following:

  • Wisconsin state agencies taking further action to combat heroin, opioid abuse and addiction.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ application for federal funding through the 21st Century CURES Act.
  • Legislation relating to opioid antagonist administration in schools;
  • Opioid treatment and diversion programs and providing funding;
  • Limited immunity for people who receive first responder care following a drug overdose;
  • Prescription requirements for certain Schedule V controlled substances;
  • The civil commitment of people experiencing substance abuse addiction;
  • The University of Wisconsin System chartering a recovery school;
  • Allocating $63,000 per year of the 2017-2019 biennium to the rural hospital graduate medical training program;
  • Allocating $1 million per year in the 2017-2019 biennium for grants to support new medically assisted treatment centers;
  • Allocating $500,000 per year in the 2017-2019 biennium for a consultation service for medical professionals to access addiction medicine specialists;
  • Allocating $420,000 per year in the 2017-2019 biennium for four additional criminal investigation agents at the Wisconsin Department of Justice focused on drug interdiction and trafficking; and
  • Allocating $100,000 per year in the 2017-2019 biennium to expand the screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment training program offered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Nygren said the executive orders will help across many different avenues with combating drug abuse.

“They cross all barriers,” Nygren said. “We’re providing more dollars for drug enforcement, providing more resources for early intervention to help identify, especially young people that may be susceptible with addiction.”

Addiction: a long road ahead

In Pierce County, where more issues are related to meth abuse, rather than heroin, Nygren said they never “specifically” said money allocated by Walker can only be used for heroin and opioids, but other drug addictions as well.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said the divide between where opioids are found is large in Wisconsin. While heroin may be more prevalent in the media, Schimel said the issue of meth abuse needs to be addressed.

Attorney General Brad Schimel“We need to think about methamphetamine again,” Schmiel said. “One of the problems have been, where most of the legislators are from, have not seen meth...I felt we needed to alert them.”

Schimel, who has served as Attorney General since 2015, has been heavily involved with drug addiction prevention in Wisconsin. Schimel is part of the opioid task force with Nygren and Kleefisch, as well as the Dose of Reality campaign.

Schimel said the Dose of Reality campaign has been trying to cut down on heroin and opioid abuse in Wisconsin, trying to get more people educated on the dangers of the drug. He said a campaign to address meth addiction is in the works as well.

“We have to get the message out to how devastatingly addictive methamphetamine is and how destructive it can be,” Schimel said.

Increasing costs in prisons and jails as they relate to inmates are an issue. Nygren said the cost of incarcerating a man in Wisconsin is around $35,000; a woman’s incarceration runs about $41,000 in state prisons. Nygren said drug courts and treatment in prison are helping but “not 100 percent successful.”

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections said inmates with simple meth possession charges increased 371 percent from 2011 to 2015. Furthermore, the number of offenders in the Division of Community Corrections with simple meth possession charges jumped 362 percent during the same four-year stretch.

On Feb. 9, Schimel, Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) and Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) testified alongside the Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration and Division of Criminal Investigations at a legislative informational hearing to address the growing issues of meth abuse in the state.

Schimel said he’s confident in his administration's efforts to combat meth and heroin abuse, but it’s not going to be fixed anytime soon.

“We’ve got a lot of work in front of us,” Schimel said. “I think given the foundation we’ve laid with other officials. We’ve got some great ideas and resources. I’m optimistic. But we aren’t getting out of it fast.”

Prevention is key

Between Nygren, Kleefisch and Schimel, prevention is the biggest place to start for combating any kind of addiction.

“We need parents to understand you have to talk to your kids about drugs,” Schimel said. “We need to reach those high school students.”

Schimel said things can be “pretty partisan” in government, but addressing drug addiction hasn’t been a one-sided message.

“On this drug issue, we’ve put aside the political differences,” Schimel said.

Schimel said the federal government used to provide funds for campaigns such as The Faces of Meth and other public service announcements, but money is sparse now.

“Grants dried up (and) it went away,” Schimel said. “I’m hearing from officials that they believe the Faces of Meth campaign had an impact.”

Nygren said money has always been an issue with prevention, but Wisconsin is making due with what they can acquire.

“Hey, there’s always more money to be spent,” Nygren said. “Rather than compare Wisconsin to perfect, compare us to the rest of the states. We’re in the top few states in the nation in the changes we’ve made.”  

In an effort to combine forces with Minnesota to combat meth addiction and grow a meth prevention campaign, Schimel has been in discussions with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson for nine months.

Schimel said Minnesota will begin to take on the Dose of Reality campaign and is sharing information through memoranda of understanding. This way, the states can work together to eliminate heroin and meth addiction.

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series by Herald reporter Matt Lambert on methamphetamine use and its effects.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism. 

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