Politics & Government
1:00 am
Tue October 15, 2013

In The Grip of Heroin Part 4: Lawmakers Grapple With The Problem

Heroin has been taking a toll in Wisconsin – because of its highly addictive and devastating grip.

State Rep. John Nygren talked about his daughter's heroin addiction as part of the Attorney General's awareness campaign.
Credit Wisconsin Department of Justice

Over the past few days, we’ve reported on the damage the illegal drug has caused – both to the individuals using it and their loved ones. Some have described the problem as epidemic in parts of the state.

Heroin’s tentacles have reached into the life of Republican Rep. John Nygren of Marinette. He recently shared in a video, the story of his 24-year-old daughter, Cassie.

Nygren says she became addicted to heroin in high school. He says he became aware of the problem as she fell from a straight-A student to habitual truant to dropout.

“I remember one day meeting her for dinner, we went to a local pizza place, she looked terrible, she told me she was using heroin and I was almost sick to my stomach. I remember growing up, you see the TV shows, you picture heroin as something that’s happening in dark alleys…”

Nygren says police recently apprehended his daughter in Texas on drug-related charges, and she faces extradition back to Wisconsin.

The Assemblyman recorded the video for the public awareness campaign the state Attorney General’s office has launched. Nygren has also introduced a package of bills he believes could help.

“I don’t think any of them are the silver bullet that everybody might be looking for. Unfortunately problems like this don’t have easy fixes, but these are just the start,” Nygren says.

One plan would let first responders administer a drug to counter a heroin overdose. Another would require people to show a photo ID when picking up opiate-based prescription painkillers – they can addict and lead to heroin use.

Nygren says he also has sights on legislation to provide more treatment options for drug crimes rather than simply putting the person in prison.

“My county sheriff says you can’t arrest your way out of this problem. There needs to be treatment to help break that cycle,” Nygren says.

Legislators from both political parties have praised Nygren’s courage and supported his bills. Last spring, the Joint Finance committee unanimously added money to the state budget for treatment and diversion programs.

Democrat Evan Goyke only wishes the committee would have pumped in more. It added one million dollars; the Milwaukee Representative wanted $75 million to help addicts who turn to crime.

“We know we’re going to pay for them in their prison cells and in their probation and parole, we know they’re going to victimize people to get and fuel their drug habits. It’s a matter of how we prioritize our resources. That treatment dollar, while expensive, saves a great amount of money on the back end,” Goyke says.

Goyke hopes the Legislature revisits the idea of additional funding. It may, but not $75 million, according to Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

“I think Rep. Nygren’s efforts are good at focusing our efforts, trying to look at programs that work and make investments, but we’re not just going to have a blank checkbook. We have to do things that make sense to the taxpayer in the long run but are affordable in the short term,” Vos says.

It’s Vos’ job, as Speaker, to schedule bills for floor action. He notes the docket is pretty full this fall, so it’s more likely the chamber will take up Nygren’s proposals to fight heroin use, early next year.