MILWAUKEE — Drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin have reached record highs during the pandemic, prompting state lawmakers to decriminalize a tool that can be used to test for the synthetic opioid that’s blamed for a majority of those deaths.
Fentanyl testing strips are considered drug paraphernalia in Wisconsin, but not for much longer. A bipartisan group of legislators passed a bill in January to legalize fentanyl testing strips and Governor Evers’ staff says he stands ready to sign the legislation into law.
Once the strips are decriminalized, Wisconsinites will be able to test street drugs to see if they’re laced with a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl.
Let’s go “360” to hear from those who fought at the grassroots level to legalize fentanyl testing strips in Wisconsin. Vivent Health shows the effectiveness of the strips that have already been distributed in the state, the Milwaukee Police Association shares how first responders will benefit from using these strips, but let’s start with Jim Sweet, a Madison man who wonders if they could have saved his 17-year-old son.
“It’s horrific, almost two years on now and not a day goes by that I don’t think about him,” Sweet said.
Sweet says his son, Aiden, was in his junior year in high school when he slipped back into using drugs and died after overdosing on fentanyl. The CDC says the synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office found fentanyl was to blame in 79 percent of the county’s drug overdose deaths last year.
“The boy was really, really bright and he was trying to find ways to kill his pain. He wasn’t trying to kill himself. So I feel like the testing strips in the right hands, people are going to use them,” Sweet said.
Fentanyl testing strips are considered drug paraphernalia under Wisconsin law. People caught using or possessing them can be charged and convicted of a felony. The new legislation would fully legalize the small strips of paper. The strips cost $1 each and can detect the presence of fentanyl in drug batches.
Despite current law, Vivent Health has been handing out the testing strips to drug users across Wisconsin for free since 2019. Kristen Grimes of Vivent Health says reducing overdoses outweighs the risk.
“The people we serve don’t want to die, they want to live and they want to be able to know what’s in their drug supply so they can stay safe and at some point recover,” Grimes said.
Grimes says Vivent Health gave out 46,000 testing strips to drug users across the state in 2021, including about 12,000 in Milwaukee. 79 percent of Milwaukee-area users who shared their results found fentanyl present in heroin.
“For those who are finding a positive test, they’re doing things like using with a friend so that if they do overdose, someone can administer Narcan, they are using a little bit of the drug, or using less,” Grimes said.
Until Governor Evers signs the bill into law, fentanyl testing strips are also illegal for law enforcement to use, something Milwaukee Police Association President Andrew Wagner strongly disagrees with.
“Fentanyl, minuscule grams of fentanyl, can get airborne and ingested into an officer’s system and really cause havoc,” Wagner said. “We did have an officer, I think it was a year or two years ago, who had ingested something and is still having heart issues due to fentanyl.”
The Milwaukee Police Association fought to have the law changed so first responders can stay safe on the job by adding the testing strips to their toolbox.
“As far as the citizens go, we also believe that should be acceptable for the citizens to use,” Wagner said. “We hope that it’s not misused in a wrong way where people are looking for that kind of high from fentanyl, but we do believe that it should be out there to save lives.”
Lawmakers in Madison say although their bill has passed both houses of the legislature, it won’t go to Governor Evers for consideration until mid-April. Governor Evers has been pushing for this law change since he took office.