Fighting heroin abuse will require changes to policy as well as awareness-raising efforts.
There still are parents who believe their kids aren't at risk. There still are officials who believe hard drugs like heroin are mostly a problem of urban areas, not something smaller cities or rural communities need to prioritize. And there still are communities who believe, or want to believe, that heroin addiction happens somewhere else.
Luckily, those attitudes are changing, partly because of the hard work by community coalitions like Marathon County's Alcohol and Other Drugs Partnership, which has launched the Pushback Against Drug Abuse campaign for public awareness and action.
But rising heroin addiction will not be fought by awareness-raising alone. The crucial next step will be changes in actual policy, and in the structural factors that lead people into addiction.That is a much broader, more complicated effort that touches on the health care system, family stability and the criminal justice system.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, has come forward to speak publicly about his own family's experience in trying to help his daughter, 24, to kick her heroin addiction. Nygren played an important role by personalizing the struggles with addiction that affect families across Wisconsin. He also has introduced a package of legislation that would make relatively small but potentially lifesaving policy changes, including a bill that would allow all first responders to carry and administer Narcan, which neutralizes the effects of opiates in the event of an overdose.
The bills, which have broad, bipartisan support, are important first steps. But we were even more intrigued by pending proposals described by Nygren and state Rep. Scott Krug, R-Rome, in an interview with Gannett Central Wisconsin Media this month that would overhaul Wisconsin's way of handling probation and parole.
Model programs in Hawaii and South Dakota, as well as specialty drug courts in Wisconsin, have shown that the possibility of a long prison sentence someday often does not motivate an addict nearly as well as the certainty of a few days in jail beginning immediately. Swiftness and certainty of punishment, in other words, are more important than severity.
When implemented well, the result is a criminal justice system that is cheaper and more effective. In Hawaii, a 2009 study found participants in a program based on this model were 53 percent less likely to have their probations revoked, 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime and 72 percent less likely to use drugs, according to a report by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
Nygren and Krug said they expect to introduce reform legislation late this year or early next year. It would be a truly ambitious overhaul and it might be politically difficult to achieve. But real, fundamental changes are what we need in the criminal justice system as well as the health system and more. The rise of heroin addiction is a problem that requires more than mere tinkering.