Our Views: Bills add tools to state's fight against heroin

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Monday, February 24, 2014

If you're still not convinced that the heroin problem around here is deadly serious, perhaps the eight mug shots in Friday's Gazette of trafficking suspects rounded up after a Walworth County undercover investigation will convince you.

Law enforcement, led by the state attorney general's office, has been stepping up efforts to halt heroin dealers. The more tools the state has to combat this scourge and prevent overdose deaths, the better. Fortunately, lawmakers last week passed a package of measures and sent them to Gov. Scott Walker. A spokesman says Walker plans to sign them.

These would:

-- Require people picking up opiate prescriptions at pharmacies to show identification. This would help track where the drugs are going.

-- Offer limited immunity to drug users calling 911 to report overdoses.

-- Make it easier for communities to set up narcotics disposal programs.

-- Allow more rescue personnel to administer Narcan, a drug that can save overdose victims.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, proposed the measures. He knows about the plague only too well. His adult daughter is battling heroin addiction and has been in and out of jail for years. When Nygren introduced these bills last fall, he cited national statistics that suggest 160,000 Wisconsin adults had used heroin or another opiate in the past year.

Every Wisconsin county now reports heroin problems. The drug can afflict loved ones young and old, in big cities and small towns. The state says drug-related heroin deaths more than doubled in Wisconsin between 2005 and 2010. Likewise, overdose deaths have been rising in recent years in Rock County, where 16 people died in 2012 alone.

Many users become addicted to painkillers such as oxycodone. Some begin by experimenting at parties with such prescription opiates, which get swiped from medicine cabinets. Once hooked, addicts turn to heroin because it's cheaper. Dealers, who mix the powder with other substances, might make one batch 40 percent pure and the next 70 percent pure to more quickly assure addiction. That higher content also poses higher overdose risks.

In addition, credit the Joint Finance Committee for voting last week to add $3 million to alternative treatment programs. Dollars were added in the last budget, but 36 counties applied for grants and just 13 got them. Investing more money, Nygren suggests, will cut crime by reducing demand for drug dealers while saving tax dollars by allowing more treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

The Senate and Assembly should support this measure, as well, before adjourning. Wisconsin needs every available weapon to battle heroin.

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