Brief

Milwaukee County to distribute legal fentanyl testing strips

By: - March 17, 2022 5:04 am
bags of heroin or other drugs containing fentanyl with skull and crossbones representing fatalities reads "Danger contains Fentanyl. Highly toxic, May be fatal)

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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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, 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. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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