A lot of progress has been made, but there is still a lot of work to do.
That was the consensus of participants in U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s roundtable discussion on opioid abuse Friday at the Weyers-Hilliard Branch of the Brown County Library.
The panel included state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, addiction counselors, drug education advocates, local leaders and other community members.
Baldwin said the surge in recent years of the number of Wisconsinites addicted to prescription painkillers and those who have turned to heroin for the same kind of high is reflective of a crisis that has swept the country.
“There is no other way to refer to this other than a crisis,” Baldwin said. “I believe that we all have to be partners in the community and the federal level because there is not a day that goes by that I don’t hear about the issue with prescription painkillers. That lets us know it’s not just Wisconsin.”
She said a continuum of education, prevention, treatment programs and funding to make them effective is the best way to reverse the trend and ensure that addicts have the opportunity to get help.
Anthony Alvarado, co-founder of Rise Together, a Wisconsin organization dedicated to preventing substance abuse, said drug education needs to be introduced in school sooner, and with a more fine-tuned curriculum.
Often, he said, drugs are talked about in school programs in a way that makes using them seem normal. For example, he said, nearly every student will raise their hand when a teacher asks if they know someone who does drugs. While that is effective for starting a discussion, he said it might be better to ask who is sober. Those people could become advocates for a drug-free life.
Lt. Matt Ronk of the Brown County Drug Task Force said law enforcement can do only so much to combat the epidemic.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Ronk said.
He said that government needs to work to improve the quality and availability of addiction treatment programs within jails and prisons. A lack of treatment programs, he said, undermines the process and contributes to increases in repeat offenses and fatalities.
Other recommendations from attendees included making it easier to become a licensed addiction counselor and funding research on the brain’s reward pathway and the role it plays in drug abuse and addiction.