State legislator calls anti-heroin bills 'a beginning'

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Anna Marie Lux
Sunday, May 4, 2014

MADISON--State Rep. John Nygren was pleased when Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a package of anti-heroin bills in early April.

“It's a beginning,” said the Marinette Republican, who authored the bills. “I felt better about these bills than anything else I've done.”

The lawmaker has more than a casual interest in slowing the epidemic of heroin use in Wisconsin. His 25-year-old daughter is addicted to heroin, and he has seen its devastation firsthand.

Among other things, the legislation dubbed Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education or HOPE:

-- Gives people immunity from criminal prosecution for drug possession if they bring a fellow drug user to an emergency room or call 911 because the person is suffering from an overdose.

-- Requires people to show identification to pick up prescriptions that are considered to have a high potential for abuse.

-- Adds $3 million for three new programs that focus on substance-abuse treatment for those who commit crimes. The Department of Health Services will determine where the programs will be located.

“Most people would say the objective of the system is to rehabilitate people,” Nygren said. “If that is our goal, we are failing miserable. If you look at the dollars spent to lock someone up, it makes more sense to rehabilitate. The recidivism rate (among heroin/opiate users) is almost 100 percent if people do not die in the meantime.”

-- Allows any trained first responders to administer naloxone, which counteracts overdoses from heroin and other opiates. In the past, only certain emergency medical providers were allowed to administer the drug, known by its brand name Narcan.

Rock County got a head start on the law six months ago, when all basic emergency medical technicians were trained in the use of Narcan.

“If someone calls 911, basic EMTs now can give this medication,” said Jay MacNeal, EMS medical director for Mercy Health System.

Paramedics already have training in the use of Narcan.

“In rural areas, it can take a while for the first paramedics to arrive on the scene,” MacNeal said.  “EMTs should be able to help rural patients prior to the paramedics arriving. We thought it was important to give EMTs this capability because there is an increasing heroin problem.”

Heroin and other opiates repress the respiratory system.

“Basically, you stop breathing,” MacNeal said. “The drug needs to be given within minutes of an overdose to prevent brain damage or death.”

The training is part of a pilot program of the state Emergency Medical Services office.

“This has great potential to save lives,” MacNeal said. “Next, we are looking at how to implement the training to firefighters and police officers.”


Nygren is proud Marinette, population 10,862, is tackling the heroin fight head-on.

“Heroin is something a small town doesn't want to talk about,” Nygren said. “But Marinette is looking at getting a treatment center. It is forming groups to look at what more can be done from an educational standpoint.

"The United Way has formed a group to come up with solutions. The local chamber of commerce also has stepped up because it is hard to hire people when they have drug issues," he said.

Nygren's daughter Cassie became addicted to heroin as a substitute for the prescription pain medicine she was using while in high school. She is serving time in prison for possession of narcotic drugs.

“Cassie's mom and I wanted law enforcement to get involved,” Nygren said. “We were desperate. If she had continued on the path she was on, she would have died. It sounds unreal that a parent would want a child to go into the correctional system, but it's not uncommon for parents of children with addictions.”

He said he was powerless to help his daughter.

“When your child is an adult, there is basically nothing you can do but convince her to go into treatment,” Nygren said. “We sleep better at night when she is in prison because she shouldn't be near drugs. When she gets out in June, she will still be addicted. She'll probably have a craving for drugs until her death bed.”

As a parent, he would like to be able to force his daughter into treatment, but he cannot.

“Civil liberties mean that you have the right to make bad decisions that can end your life,” he said.

In the fight against heroin, he believes Wisconsin is headed in a better direction.

“But there are a lot of bad days ahead,” he said. “We've made it better, but people will still be struggling.”

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