Milwaukee County deploys first harm-reduction vending machine

$11 million in opioid settlement funds are fueling new strategies to combat a wave of overdose deaths

By: - March 14, 2023 6:30 am
Nasal Narcan, used to reverse an overdose, stock the inside of Milwaukee County's first harm reduction vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Nasal Narcan, used to reverse an overdose, stock the inside of Milwaukee County’s first harm reduction vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Free-to-use vending machines packed with harm reduction supplies including Narcan, fentanyl testing strips, gun locks, and other supplies have made their way to Milwaukee County. The first of the machines, located at the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center in Milwaukee, was unveiled by county officials Monday morning. The vending machines are just one of 15 projects, funded through $11 million in opioid settlement funds, which aim to reduce fatal overdoses and the trauma that follows.

“Death from overdose is a terrible crisis in our community,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley at a press conference Monday. “We are working to address this crisis with a multi-faceted approach across county departments.”

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signs a bill which makes $11 million in opioid settlement funds available for projects. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signs a bill which makes $11 million in opioid settlement funds available for projects. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“The harm reduction vending machines are an important first step in deploying opioid settlement funds to prevent death from overdose,” Crowley added.

After speaking, Crowley signed a measure releasing millions of dollars to help support harm reduction strategies, including the vending machines, over the next three years. County officials say that currently there are no concerns regarding whether funding will run out after those three years.

This will be data-informed and transparent.

– Dr. Ben Weston

Last year, there were 644 drug-related deaths in Milwaukee County. For the past several years, Milwaukee County has set and broken new records for overdose deaths annually. Overdose deaths also regularly outpace homicide and vehicle fatalities in the county. Various forms of the synthetic opioid fentanyl fuel the crisis. Some variations of fentanyl, such as acetyl fentanyl, are up to 15 times more potent than heroin.

Fentanyl has been detected in a wide variety of drugs on the black market including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, pills sold as percocet or other pain killers, MDMA (also called Molly or Ecstasy), and others. Its presence has entirely altered the landscape of drug use in Milwaukee County. That effect was  something Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s chief health policy advisor and director of medical services at the Office of Emergency Management, remarked on Monday.

Needles are seen littering the pavement in a lane near to a Safe Consumption van set up by Peter Krykant on September 25, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. Peter a recovering heroin addict and former drugs worker, has set up the drug consumption van where addicts can inject safely and take drugs under supervision. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Needles are seen littering the pavement in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“In Milwaukee County, somebody dies of an overdose every 16 hours,” said Weston. “And these people are young; the average age is 44 years old. They’re men and women, they’re Black and white and Hispanic, every race and ethnicity. They’re also sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.”

He recalled being out in the community with the Milwaukee Fire Department a few weeks ago. “A call came in for a woman who had overdosed,” he recounted. “We went to her home, and found her laid out between the kitchen and the living room after an overdose. She was in cardiac arrest.” First responders attempted to revive the woman but were unsuccessful.

Weston declared her dead, then walked outside where he saw the woman’s daughter in the front passenger seat of a Milwaukee police vehicle. The daughter was no more than 6 or 7 years old, Weston said. With her was a young officer who was attempting to distract her from “what would undoubtedly be one of the worst days of her life,” said Weston. “This happens every day in Milwaukee County, every 16 hours.” Weston noted that 95% of opioid overdoses are linked to fentanyl. An amount of the drug that weighs less than a couple of grains of salt can be fatal.

Milwaukee County’s first harm-reduction vending machine

Talks about deploying the vending machines have been in the works for months, as reported by the Wisconsin Examiner. Last October, 20 vending machines were purchased from HRI Vending. The machines were customized to serve their specific purpose, and delivered to the Marcia P. Coggs building on Vliet Street. County officials eagerly demonstrated how the machines work at a press conference Monday at the Coggs building.

Dr. Ben Weston stands beside Milwaukee County's first harm-reduction vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Dr. Ben Weston stands beside Milwaukee County’s first harm-reduction vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

No money is required to operate the machine. Instead, rows of supplies are coordinated by letters and numbers such as B4. All you have to do is type in a corresponding code to get the supplies you need. Narcan, which can save lives by helping reverse an overdose, is stocked in the machine. Fentanyl testing strips, which were decriminalized last year, are also available in the machines. Testing strips allow people to safely and easily determine whether fentanyl is present in drugs.

“This will be data-informed and transparent,” Weston said of the vending machines.

While an important tool, strategies like testing strips can be easy targets for stigma. Some people see them as a tool that enables people to use illicit drugs. Treatment centers often also contend with Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) attitudes. Milwaukee County Supervisor Priscilla Coggs-Jones stressed that the harm reduction vending machines do not promote drug use.

“Rather, they recognize the reality that many people will continue to use drugs, regardless of the legality or the risk involved,” said Coggs-Jones, granddaughter of the woman for whom the human services center hosting the press conference  was named. “By providing access to harm reduction supplies, these machines will help keep individuals safe, and reduce the spread of disease like HIV and hepatitis C.”

Members of the press were invited to try the vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Homes)
Members of the press were invited to try the vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Homes)

She praised the decision to deploy the vending machines as “a positive step towards addressing the root cause of drug addiction and overdose. This, in turn, will improve the overall health and the well being of Milwaukee County and our community.”

The vending machines also distribute medication deactivation pouches and lock bags. When residents need to safely get rid of medications, these supplies will come in handy. Gun locks are also provided by the vending machines. Gun violence is an ever present community concern, with homicide rates also on the rise  in recent years. The increase in deaths has  occurred after or alongside a spike in gun sales in the state. As with  overdoses, Milwaukee County is taking a public health approach to tackling gun violence.

Community organizations are welcome to apply to host a vending machine by March 31. The application notes that public and private businesses, religious organizations, non-profits and behavioral health service providers are welcome to apply. The vending machines also aren’t the only project the county is working on. The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) will be implementing seven projects with opioid settlement funding. In February, listening sessions were held to gather community input on what projects to focus on. DHHS will develop proposals over the next several months.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley (left) sits beside County Supervisor Pricilla Coggs-Jones (right) and other county officials, celebrating the deployment of Milwaukee’s first harm-reduction vending machine.

Shakita LaGrant-McClain, DHHS executive director, said that in April, the department will release a Request For Proposal (RFP), seeking community partners to get involved in harm reduction approaches. “The more we collectively work together to reduce harm,” she said, “the more we can save lives.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.