Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl. (Photo by Drew Angerer | Getty Images)
Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Services (BHS) will distribute 1,600 fentaly testing strips in the community. The announcement follows a signing ceremony Wednesday in which Gov. Tony Evers approved legislation to decriminalize the use of the testing strips while visiting La Crosse Lighthouse Inc., an addiction rehabilitation center.
Decriminalization is part of an ongoing effort to curb opioid-related drug overdoses. Recent years have seen Milwaukee County annually set and break records for overdose deaths. A majority of the 560 overdose deaths in 2021 — about 79% — involved various forms of fentanyl.
Fentanyl testing strips have been a growing topic of conversation, both locally and in the state Legislature. Wisconsin law regarded the strips as illegal drug paraphernalia, even if used by first responders and law enforcement. But that hasn’t prevented addiction treatment advocates from distributing fentanyl testing strips to people suffering from Substance Use Disorder. Recent bipartisan bills in the Legislature have moved to legalize the strips statewide.
“Without access to these testing strips,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, “drug users risk overdose from the otherwise undetectable presence of fentanyl, which is why I am so passionate about the legalization of these strips and proud that bipartisan legislation has accomplished that goal.”
In 2021, Ortiz-Velez co-authored a resolution to legalize the strips alongside Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). The push finally led to the strips becoming legal on Wednesday. Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley stressed the need to tackle the overdose crisis head-on. “The opioid epidemic continues to rage on, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an outsized impact on every aspect of our lives,” said Crowley, “including accessing the necessary care and tools to prevent overdose deaths. It was clear the law needed to change in order to save lives, and I’m thankful for champions in the State Assembly and State Senate who fought to legalize fentanyl testing strips and help prevent future drug overdoses.”
The move has also been praised by Milwaukee’s behavioral health community. “The testing strips will be a valuable tool to help prevent death from overdose,” said Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services Director Shakita LaGrant-McClain. “The most important step is keeping people alive so they can get the treatment and help to give them the best quality of life possible.”
Milwaukee County BHS administrator Mike Lappen echoed the optimism. “While the pandemic has made it difficult for the City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force to meet, progress is being made to curb the rate of overdose deaths,” said Lappen. “This legislation proves that all of the effort and lobbying by people who are passionate about reforms and innovation will lead to positive change by providing cutting-edge care to our community members.”
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