Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash
The state’s drug overdose crisis, largely driven by the spread of fentanyl across illicit drug markets, has compelled many to re-think how to save lives. One bill (AB-619), discussed by the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, seeks to decriminalize fentanyl testing strips in Wisconsin. Doing so would end a standing prohibition on the testing strips and allow their use by ordinary citizens and first responders. Currently, possessing fentanyl testing strips can land you a felony charge.
Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona), who testified in favor of the bill Wednesday, said legalizing fentanyl testing strips is “part of the education that needs to get out there.” James referenced a Chippewa Falls incident involving a young man who had purchased a dietary supplement online. James, who has a background in law enforcement related the story of the man, who apparently dipped his finger into the supplement to taste it. “As he arrived home, his mom, all she could hear was tires squealing and a crash,” said James. “And his mom went outside and she found him where he had smashed into their garage, with the foot depressed on the accelerator. And he was dead. And he was not revived, and he died.”
Fentanyl is an opioid which can be from 50-100 times more potent than morphine. It was originally developed as a pain treatment for patients with end-stage cancer. However, it has flourished on the black market over the last decade as an additive to heroin. Recently, fentanyl has spread to other drugs including cocaine, methamphetamine, and other substances. It’s so potent that a dose the size of a grain of salt can trigger a fatal overdose. Suppliers have also flooded the market with a variety of fentanyl analogs, which escape even newly minted laws and regulations.
From 2014-2019, according to the Department of Health Services (DHS), over 6,200 people died of a drug overdose in Wisconsin. Nearly 4,800 of those deaths involved opioids and over 1,900 of them involved heroin. In Milwaukee County, 544 people died of a drug-related death last year, a record-breaking figure. More than 400 of those deaths involved fentanyl.
In Wisconsin, fentanyl testing strips are considered drug paraphernalia. James called the strips “valuable, life saving, and a very inexpensive tool that can get results in approximately five minutes — and truly can be a matter of life and death.” Need for the strips is growing every day, as fentanyl finds its way into an increasing variety of products and substances. Many parts of the state have been challenged with a rise in illicit pressed pills and medications. While someone may think they’re buying a percocet, they may be getting a counterfeit pill which had fentanyl pressed into it.
Members of several organizations testified in favor of the bill including figures from Vivent Health, Wisconsin Medical Society, and people who have lost loved ones to drug overdose. Dr. Ritu Bhatnagar of Wisconsin’s Medical Society highlighted that counterfeit pills are getting better and better. Even pills which appear to be stamped in a legitimate way may not have any of the ingredients of the medication they purport to be. Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) also testified in favor of the bill. Ortiz-Velez’s district includes Milwaukee’s predominantly Latino and Hispanic South Side. Although there are drug overdoses throughout Milwaukee County, dense clusters of deaths routinely occur on the South Side.
“Assembly District 8 contains most of 53204 and 53215 area codes,” said Ortiz-Velez. “These area codes have the highest deaths anywhere in the state when it comes to overdoses. Wisconsin has experienced great suffering which has intensified during the COVID-19 crisis. Last year, Wisconsin reported more than 1,200 opioid deaths. And in Milwaukee County, for example, opioid deaths continue to be higher than homicides, suicides, and motor vehicle accidents combined. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl in Milwaukee County went from 8% to 73%.”
Kristin Grimes, director of prevention services at Vivent Health, has seen these upticks while doing advocacy and medical work. “In 2020, we distributed 54,000 fentanyl testing strips,” said Grimes.
“This is not just one part of Wisconsin that is impacted by this issue,” Grimes added. “All 10 of our offices distribute fentanyl test strips. So it’s not an urban issue, it’s not a rural issue, it’s a state of Wisconsin issue.”
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