The number of people using heroin in Wisconsin has risen steadily over the last five years.
So has the number of those dying from overdoses.
Professionals ranging from addiction specialists to law enforcement huddled Wednesday to discuss possible ways to get their arms around the problem. The summit addressed not only heroin use, but also the abuse of opiate-based prescription painkillers, which sometimes lead users to heroin.
Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy organized the gathering.
“We now see more people dying in this country of opiate-related and heroin deaths than automobile accidents, and too many of them are our children…when you look at these trends, God help us, if we don’t make a difference,” Murphy says.
Hundreds of people from five counties heard emotional, sometimes chilling testimonials. People who’ve struggled with heroin addiction shared their stories. So did families who’ve lost members.
“People are scared, and quite honestly they rightfully should be scared, and that’s where government should step up collaboratively and work together. And we have a very, you know, difficult political climate in Wisconsin, but this is one issue, I think, all of us -- whatever our persuasions are -- can say ‘enough is enough, we got to get an action plan together,’” Murphy says.
The Obama administration sent a representative. Michael Gottlieb works for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He says communities have begun to realize that heroin and opiate addiction is not just an issue for law enforcement to address.
“This is not a problem we’re going to arrest our way out of. What we’re going to need to do is, we’re going to need to be proactive in terms of prevention, in terms of education, in terms of treatment. This is an issue that involves every segment,” Gottlieb says.
In fact, segments have come together in Wisconsin. The State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention has spent the last few months collecting ideas for how communities can respond. It will release those recommendations Friday.
Scott Stokes is chair of the group. He says, for example, the recommendations offer ways to educate children about the risks associated with heroin and prescription painkillers.
Stokes say the suggestions may solve one shortcoming he sees in how Wisconsin has dealt with the problem.
“The weakness to me was the fact that everybody was kind of working in their own silo. Nobody really got together to discuss issues, and at least this brought folks to the table to discuss things, and also recognizing that it is a multifaceted complex issue, and it’s going to take a lot to change it,” Stokes says.
Stokes says each community will decide whether to implement the plan. He says those that do, will be able to jump in right away and make change, instead of first having to reinvent the wheel.