Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jan 2017
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 2017 Journal Sentinel Inc.


In Milwaukee County, a record 299 people died from drug overdoses in 2016,
outstripping the 255 total deaths in 2015, which was itself a record. That
preliminary total does not include an estimated 45 suspected drug-related
deaths that are awaiting toxicology results.

[photo] Alyssa Anderson, 24, died in March 2015 of a heroin overdose. She
was one of 281 people who died from heroin statewide in 2015 and the death
toll continued to climb in 2016.(Photo: Family photo)

Annette Renk remembers her daughter playing the violin and bass guitar,
exploring nature and caring for her pets -- a cat, a snake and a

"She loved the creatures other people thought were unlovable," Renk said.

Looking back, she can see signs of her daughter's addiction: prescription
pills stolen from a locked box, mood swings and dozing off unexpectedly.
When her daughter later admitted to abusing drugs, the subsequent
financial and emotional strain eroded Renk's relationship with her husband
and the two divorced.

She and her daughter moved into an apartment together, and her daughter
went to a 45-day in-patient treatment program.

Less than two days after she came home, Renk went to her room to wake her
and saw a needle on the nightstand.

Her 24-year-old daughter, Alyssa Anderson, was dead of a heroin overdose
- -- one of 281 lives lost to heroin statewide in 2015, according to a
recent USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin report.

"I lost my daughter to this horrible addiction and I want people to know
why, how easy it is to lose somebody," she said.

As state and local leaders rolled out more efforts last week to combat the
growing opioid epidemic, the death toll continues to mount.

In Milwaukee County, a record 299 people died from drug overdoses in 2016,
outstripping the 255 total deaths in 2015, which was itself a record. That
preliminary total does not include an estimated 45 suspected drug-related
deaths in 2016 that are awaiting toxicology results.

Of the 299 confirmed drug-related deaths, about 45% -- 132 -- involved
heroin. The number of deaths involving the potent painkiller fentanyl
reached 80 -- nearly tripling the number of cases from 2015.

"Everything is trending high as far as drug overdoses," said Sara
Schreiber, forensic technical director of the county's toxicology lab.

The volume of cases and the variety of drugs challenge forensic
investigators tasked with determining a cause and manner of death.

"People are using more than one drug and there are newer substances, more
designer drugs and things we haven't seen before," Schrieber said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate similar to morphine and can be legally
prescribed by a doctor, but it can be 40 to 50 times more powerful than
heroin. Investigators have been aware of the drug for years and have
repeatedly highlighted how lethal it can be.

This year, they saw something new in Milwaukee County: furanyl fentanyl.

It's a variation, or analog, of fentanyl and it is just as deadly.

Federal authorities recently added it as a Schedule 1 drug after at least
128 deaths were tied to it. Those deaths were reported in Illinois,
Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Ohio in 2015 and 2016.

Much of the fentanyl appears to be coming from Chinese labs.

Furanyl fentanyl began popping up more frequently in the U.S. after China
banned more than 100 synthetic drugs, including a popular analog known as
acetyl fentanyl, in the fall of 2015 and manufacturers there developed new
variations, according to STAT News, an online health publication.

Fentanyl can be illicitly produced in pill form and there have been
reports of dealers using the same colors as prescription drugs such as
OxyContin that typically have a higher street-value sale. People may think
they are buying a prescription painkiller, but instead are getting a much
more powerful, and more deadly, narcotic.

"You just really don't know what that substance is," Schrieber said of
street drugs.

"We're seeing mixtures we haven't seen before and what (users) thought
they bought, the potency, it has all changed in the last couple of years."

State and local leaders have ramped up initiatives to address the drug
epidemic, making several announcements last week.

Gov. Scott Walker has called for a special legislative session to
implement recommendations from a report issued by Lt. Gov. Rebecca
Kleefisch and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), whose daughter has struggled
with heroin addiction.

Among the slate of proposals are: giving school staff legal immunity when
administering the anti-overdose drug naloxone; providing limited immunity
for those who overdose on heroin so their friends don't avoid calling 911;
allowing heroin abusers to be civilly committed in court; and requiring a
prescription for cough syrup with opioid codeine.

The governor and lawmakers also are seeking to provide $1 million a year
in grants to support addiction treatment centers. Walker also ordered the
state Department of Health Services to apply for up to $7.6 million a year
in federal funding through the 21st Century CURES Act to fight the drug.

In Milwaukee, a Common Council committee recently formalized a city-county
task force on the issue and approved a pilot program to make envelopes
available for people to dispose of unwanted prescription drugs. The
envelopes contain a substance that dissolves the drugs, making it safe for
a landfill.

The action builds on the city's partnership with CVS Pharmacy, which has
provided mail-back envelopes for people to dispose of unused prescription
drugs. The envelopes also are available at Milwaukee and Cudahy police

"We find a lot of people hooked on legal narcotics so getting them out of
the area where people could have access to them, I think is a good thing,
and it's better than flushing them and polluting the waterways," said Ald.
Michael Murphy, who has helped lead city efforts on the issue.

The city also has partnered with the Medical College of Wisconsin, with
funding from the Zilber Family Foundation, to collect data about the scope
of the problem, identify best practices and guide policy decisions here.

One of the first reports from the collaboration, released early last year,
showed white adults made up roughly two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths
in a four-year period in Milwaukee County. The average age was 44.

"It's not just young people," Murphy said. "The education campaign going
in schools is extremely important, but the issue remains that the vast
majority of people dying are adults."

'Life or death'

The boost of funding and sustained attention from lawmakers shows some
promise, said Jessica Gechke, president of Stop Heroin Now.

But she also highlighted the continued need for more inpatient treatment
centers, which are intensive, residential programs to treat substance

Stop Heroin Now is an all-volunteer group founded nearly four years ago by
a mother whose son died from a heroin overdose. Each year, the
organization raises money through the rallies, casino nights and golf
outings and uses it to pay for a month of inpatient treatment for two
people. The cost can range between $3,000 to $4,000 without insurance.

There are always more applicants than funding and it truly is a
"life-or-death" situation for people, she said.

"I think that this addiction and this epidemic is still hush-hush," she said.

Stop Heroin Now organizes annual vigils throughout southeastern Wisconsin
to bring together those who have lost relatives, friends or coworkers to
addiction. It helps people realize they are not alone, Gechke said.

Renk, whose daughter died in 2015, was one of the featured speakers at a
vigil last month.

"It totally changed my entire life," Renk said of her daughter's
addiction. "I lost my marriage, the home I had lived in, that divorce led
to a change of jobs, all on top of losing my child."

"I just think there's such a taboo about talking about things like this,"
she said. "I refuse to do that."
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