Wisconsin, like many other states in the country, has been struggling with heroin abuse problems for years. It has reached the point where many of their public officials are calling it a “public health crisis,” and the situation continues to get worse.
Milwaukee county, in the southern part of Wisconsin and bordered by Lake Michigan, has been especially suffering in the past year or so. From 2013 to 2014, the county reported 119 people dying from heroin overdoses. (For comparative purposes, look at their rate of motor vehicle deaths, which came in at only 74.) This is the highest number of drug-related deaths that the county has ever recorded. It’s causing officials much concern.
This increase in heroin deaths follows the national trend of opioid deaths, which has spiked recently. Opioids are a class of drugs which includes not just heroin, but its sister drugs such as prescription painkillers and heroin “cures” like methadone –all of which are derived from a certain poppy. They are all very addictive, and to a certain extent can be swapped out with each other without the user having withdrawals or ill effects. As these drugs have risen in popularity, The opioid death rate has been climbing for years, outstripping even cocaine as a profitable, popular drug.
Many people are hooked on opioids who aren’t “typical” addicts. Many people become hooked when they’re prescribed high-strength painkillers, often without suitable warnings from the doctor about the dangers involved. Patients can easily become addicted before they know what’s happening to them. Then it’s up to them to procure more opioids when their prescription runs out.
Because of the cost of illicit prescription meds (in the Milwaukee area it costs up to $80 for a single prescription pain pill, as compared to $15 for a hit of heroin) and because of increased regulations and restrictions on the pills, it’s cheaper and easier for an opioid addict to acquire heroin instead. Of course, it’s also much more rough on the body, but addicts tend not to think about that when they’re suffering from withdrawals and trying to get their next fix.
TRYING TO STOP THE EPIDEMIC
One strategy that officials have pursued has to do with distributing naloxone, a drug which counteracts heroin overdoses. Officials are trying to increase availability of naloxone, and have authorized that any first responder can administer it. Naloxone blocks the effects of heroin so strongly that injecting someone with it will put them instantly into withdrawals. It can save an addict from death when very little else can work quickly enough.
They are also trying to further increase the restrictions on prescription drugs. Perhaps this may initially push more prescription addicts to investigate heroin, but ultimately the hope is that fewer people will become hooked on opioids in the first place. One common-sense approach is to install collection bins at every police station,
where people can drop off any unused prescription pain meds. This keeps them from entering circulation on the black market.
The authorities have also been focusing more on busting big drug rings, like that of a 46-year-old man who was found to have nearly $600,000 of heroin in his possession. This is one of the largest busts in Wisconsin’s history—a good thing, because that heroin is no longer available, but also a bad thing, as bigger drug busts can indicate that the traffickers are becoming more organized and moving more drugs into an area.
Time will tell if these strategies are effective. If so, perhaps they can be exported to the rest of the country, where the fight against opioids also rages.