(Michael Longmire | Unsplash)
Milwaukee County Supv. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez is calling on the state of Wisconsin to legalize fentanyl testing strips. The strips would allow law enforcement, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and ordinary individuals to test for fentanyl in drugs they consume. In Milwaukee County, drug overdose deaths reached a new record high of 544 in 2020, with fentanyl involved in 408 of the deaths.
“Milwaukee County has experienced the greatest suffering from opiate overdoses of all jurisdictions in Wisconsin,” said Ortiz-Velez. “Last year opiate overdose deaths continued to be higher than homicides, suicides, and motor vehicle accidents combined.” The increasing prevalence of fentanyl in a variety of illicit drugs has caused the frequency of deaths to increase. Last year, methamphetamine deaths rose from 16 in 2019, to 31 in 2020. Cocaine deaths also increased due to combinations with fentanyl. Several types of fentanyl are also circulating Wisconsin, including unregulated designer and research varieties.
“Fentanyl testing strips can be used to detect the presence of fentanyl in a substance and prevent accidental overdoses,” stressed Ortiz-Valez. “Law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians are among the first to encounter cases of suspected overdoses and their ability to ascertain if fentanyl was involved changes the protocol and allows first responders to keep themselves safe.”
Under current law, testing strips are illegal not only for ordinary people, but also for first responders. She emphasizes law enforcement because at times officers seizing illicit fentanyl are in danger from exposure to even trace amounts of the drug.
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Even more at risk than police and EMTs, however, are people who use the drugs; those who are on the proverbial “front lines.” Providing easy access to fentanyl testing strips would allow people who use drugs to test the drugs they buy. Combined with readily access to anti-overdose medications like Narcan, such measures can save lives.
However, without expanding treatment options, the question remains if the problem will only continue to worsen.
Ortiz-Velez’s resolution calling for the legalization of testing strips also highlights the goal of drafting bills at the state level with the same aim. Legalizing testing strips has gained a wealth of community support in Milwaukee from such organizations as TEAM HAVOC, God Touch Ministries and six county supervisors who signed on to the resolution as co-sponsors. The board is expected to consider the item at its July 29 meeting.
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