Some want to shift perscription for drugs from prison to treatment

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

An influential Republican legislator is stepping up his campaign to have Wisconsin re-think how it deals with illegal narcotics.

“Our state is recovering when it comes to addiction, but we’re not recovered yet,” says State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who is co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee. Nygren’s daughter, now 25, had a teenage OxyContin habit that led to heroin addiction

She spent time in prison but has been drug-free for more than a year. The family is open about the challenges it has faced.

Spurred by his family’s experience Nygren drafted a package of bills labeled HOPE: for “heroin, opiate prevention and education.” The seven bills passed the Legislature unanimously.

The laws require identification to obtain prescription drugs, allow first-responders to administer reaction drugs to overdoses, and provide immunity for persons calling 911 to report overdoses. It’s a first step in trying to shift the public emphasis from a lawand order approach to education and treatment.

He concedes that hard-nose approaches to drug issues have been popular with the public across the nation. That approach continues to surface in Wisconsin.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign proposes drug testing for persons seeking unemployment compensation or food stamps. It’s a popular idea among states where Republicans are in control.

Critics say federal law apparently would prohibit state governments from barring food stamps or jobless benefits from those who fail drug tests. Inclusion of that measure in Walker’s campaign platform indicates that Nygren has lots of work ahead in order to change public opinion. The public has to understand that there is a large cost to the “lock-‘em-up” approach to drug issues.

“We’re spending $35,000 a year for a man, $41,000 a year for a woman in state prisons, and getting zero results,” Nygren said in a recent speech. The prison system is seeking an additional $45 million for its budget in the next biennium. The prison system is the major employer in several small towns, so a change in policy could also affect employment in those towns.

Wisconsin has the highest per- prison, and many of those inmates are there because of links to illegal drugs in the inner city. Department of Justice statistics for 2009 cited Milwaukee, Rock and Dane as counties with significant heroin problems.

Three years later, the DOJ showed widespread heroin problems, especially in the Fox River Valley. DOJ statistics showed the heroin problems also had spread to rural counties in central and western Wisconsin, demonstrating that drug issues are for white people as well as those of color.

Nygren seemed to speak to the heroin problem that is no longer just an issue for the inner cities.

“There are no barriers with drug addiction and alcoholism. I think that’s what’s changing in society,” he said. “You can raise your kids right, you can come from the white-picket fence world, and you can still have a child with a problem.”

Nygren concedes the treatment approach won’t wipe out drug issues. He estimates it will help just 30 percent of those who get it. But 30 percent is better than the zero from the prison approach.

“Six or eight years ago, before addiction affected my family, I probably would have had a different view on it,” he said. “When it affects your family, someone you work with, somebody you know at church, all of the sudden your views and those barriers that you might have had in the past are broken down.”


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