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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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040914SIGNING.jpg.jpg

SIGN BILL—With state and local dignitaries looking on, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law four bills to help deal with the heroin problem in the area. The bills, which were sponsored by Representative John Nygren (far left), were signed by Walker at the Marinette County Courthouse on Monday morning.

Gov. Walker Signs Drug HOPE Bills In Marinette

April of 2014 may go down in history as the start of a new season of HOPE for the families of drug addicts in Marinette County and all across Wisconsin. At the Marinette County Courthouse on Monday, April 7 Gov. Scott Walker signed into law four of seven bills aimed at “Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education” HOPE.The series of bills introduced by Rep. John Nygren of Marinette provides new and hopefully better ways to treat and prevent heroin addiction and punish those who continue abusing the drug.

There were about 100 persons in the County Board Room to witness the historic signing.

This is believed to be the first time a Wisconsin governor has singled out Marinette County for a ceremonial bill signing. When the governor arrived at 8:30 a.m., the County Board room, rearranged for the event, was filled with over 100 observers, staff, supporters and security personnel. Gov. Walker and his entourage had flown into Twin County Airport in Menominee Monday morning. The remaining three bills in the HOPE program were signed Monday at Stevens Point, Eau Claire and Milwaukee.

Walker said the day-long ceremonial signing events were starting in Marinette, not only because it is Nygren’s home community, but because of the particular problems this district faces. Marinette County has the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita rate of heroin overdose deaths in the state. However, Walker said, drug problems that once were considered to be urban types of concerns have spread to rural areas, with young people typically starting out using prescription drugs. “This is a challenge all across the state,” Walker declared. He said one of the purposes of the bill signings in various parts of the state was to raise public awareness of the issues involved.

Thanks to the governor’s support, Nygren’s efforts and those of the Marinette County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a new Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD) program will soon be underway here. Robin Elsner, head of the Health and Human Services Department that has primary responsibility for the new HOPE project, hopes they will begin admitting people to the program in early June.

“We’ve got to make this happen, It’s been a long time coming, and now that it’s here we have to get going on it,” Elsner declared. Thanks to one of the bills penned by Nygren and now signed by the governor, Marinette County will be receiving a $124,502 state grant to help cover TAD expenses. The county match of $94,183 is to come from existing program funds and savings anticipated from a reduction in the number of jailed drug offenders.

Statistics show that 100 percent of prisoners jailed for heroin abuse and not treated come back for subsequent stays, generally more than once. Total cost to the county, the state, society in general and the families involved has not been calculated but even the measurable costs add up to many millions.

On Tuesday, April 8, educators from Washington, DC began a three-day TAD Court training session with Marinette County people, including the recently appointed TAD Coordinator, Sarah Plansky Pecor. Pecor is a veteran of 23 years with the local Department of Health and Human Services, most recently as a child abuse investigator.

Others being trained are Sheriff Jerry Sauve, Health and Human Services ADAPT Clinic Director Rob Valentine, State Probation and Parole Officer Bobbie Christopherson, Public Defender Brad Schraven, District Attorney Al Brey or a representative from his office, a representative of community educators, and Circuit Court Branch II Judge James Morrison, who was instrumental in getting the grant that made the intensive Drug Court training session possible. All are members of the local Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee and are expected to take active roles as the new programs become reality.

Further refinement of TAD plans is expected at a Health and Human Services Committee meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, and at a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting at 8 a.m. Friday, April 18. Elsner said the goal of the Marinette County program will be to get addicts off drugs and alcohol and into productive, meaningful life styles.

Gov. Walker was welcomed to Marinette on Monday morning by Sheriff Jerry Sauve, who admitted that “Marinette County has had quite a problem with this heroin epidemic in the last five or six years...Our jail is 10 years old and badly over crowded and it has affected so many people in so many ways and not in a good way.” He commended Nygren for his leadership in efforts to fight heroin and opiate drug addictions. “He really took the lead and pulled the wagon,” Sauve declared.

Sauve introduced Governor Walker, who promptly turned the microphone over to Nygren, but not before he also praised Nygren and Senators Shiela Harsdorf and Alberta Darling for their leadership in bringing the new drug laws into reality. He said Nygren in particular had much credibility on the issue both because of his own family problems with heroin and because of his position as chair of the state legislature’s Joint Finance committee.

Nygren’s daughter Cassie was involved with opiate drugs, which brought the problem home to him in very personal ways.

Nygren said the drug problem, “is much bigger than my family story. It affects the entire community, particularly in the last six or seven years.”

Nygren admitted at first talking about his family’s involvement was extremely difficult, “because your personal stories are just that...personal.” Talking about the problem got easier as he learned more and more about the needs. He said an incredible number of people have talked with him in the last five months, with some incredible stories to tell.

These laws, Nygren said, won’t cure the problems, but they will give law enforcement people more tools to work with in their efforts to save lives and restore futures. The entire HOPE agenda, he added, will “create more awareness of the problems we face here in northeast Wisconsin and the state and even the entire nation.”

Nygren said provisions for alternative treatments are important because studies show that past handling of opiate addicts through the law enforcement and court systems produce “100 percent recidivism,” which he maintained proves that “incarceration isn’t always the best treatment, and alternatives are needed to deal with this horrible scourge.”

Gov. Walker expressed hope that the new methods will prove successful, “and someday in the future we can come back and talk about the heroin problem we used to have.”

Flanked by officials from the City and County of Marinette, Walker began signing the four bills, using at least 14 pens which were eventually distributed to those present. State Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz and and State Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay were among state level officials who witnessed the historic signing.

“I’m very happy these bills got passed, both for law enforcement and for individuals,” Mursau declared. “This is a good first step and we’re going to keep working on things to control these problems...which are very prevalent in Marinette County. We want to keep making it easier to help people get off these drugs,” Mursau went on, but stressed, “These laws don’t give more freebies, they give help to all the people involved.” “Fighting addiction”, he added, “isn’t about putting people in jail any more, it’s about helping them stay out of jail!”

Cowles said he was on hand to show support for Gov. Walker and Nygren. He said all the bills being signed on Monday were the result of Nygren’s work, “and we just helped.” He expects these seven bills will not be the last in the HOPE arsenal. A bill coming later will provide graduated penalties for various types of drug offenses. He noted that all seven of the bills Walker would sign that day had passed both houses of the legislature without opposition.

“This is the best news I’ve seen in the two years I’ve been on the bench,” declared Judge Morrison, who has been among the most active promoters of the Drug Court and TAD programs. He has spoken frequently of the frustration of having to sentence relatively minor drug offenders to prison because there is no local treatment available. “This is the first time we have tools that will both protect the public and help the addicts,” he declared.

Morrison, at other meetings, has told of being criticized by the family of a young drug offender for sending her to prison, and asking them, “Would you rather visit her in prison or in the cemetery...That is your only choice!” He is hopeful now that HOPE may change that grim outlook. District Attorney Allen Brey has expressed the same sentiments.

Elsner, who will be overall head of the TAD program for Marinette County, said the most effective treatment for addicts is a form of very busy, involved outpatient treatment, though the Marinette County model may include some relatively brief inpatient stays when appropriate. He said the goal is case management which will keep recovering addicts involved in TAD activities 30 to 40 hours a week, to help them learn to live an alcohol and drug free life style. He said the way to tell if an addict is truly reformed is to determine if they have begun living meaningful and productive lives. He has no patience with the maintenance-type drugs that may control the need for opiates, but keep people from living less than productive lives.

Marinette County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder felt it was quite an honor to have the first signing ceremony for the HOPE project held in Marinette County.

“Today Wisconsin has taken a great step forward in the battle against opiate addiction,” Nygren said after all seven bills were signed. “After traveling the state with Governor Walker and watching as he signed all seven of my HOPE Agenda bills into law, I’m proud that our state now has a foundation that will help those who struggle with heroin and prescription drug addiction.

“Addiction affects people of all demographics, races and income levels. Many have focused on urban areas when considering the problem of addiction, but times have changed,” Nygren said. “Today, rural areas are also at risk. The truth is that we’re currently amidst a heroin epidemic in northeast Wisconsin. While I’ve said many times that these bills are not the ‘silver bullets’ to solving the problem, they are certainly important first steps in the right direction.”

Nygren has worked with law enforcement, addiction rehabilitation groups, pharmacists, the legal community and all levels of state and county government to formulate this comprehensive package. “These laws are a great improvement for Wisconsin, and I am proud that I was able to bring this important issue to the forefront,” Nygren declared. “Now, it’s my hope that we will continue to build upon the HOPE agenda in the future, and continue to make necessary changes that will help those who suffer because of addiction.”

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen joined the chorus praising Nygren for his efforts on behalf of the entire HOPE legislative package. “I commend Representative Nygren for his leadership, and I thank fellow lawmakers and the governor for their support of these critical, lifesaving pieces of legislation. The spiral of opiate and heroin abuse is unrelenting but so is our will to defeat it, and today marks an important step in ridding our great state of this evil,” he declared in a news release issued on Monday.

Van Hollen added some specific praise for AB 668, which supports the TAD program. “These projects across the state have already proven effective and cost efficient as we work toward reducing victimization.”

Van Hollen noted that National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is set for Saturday, April 26. Individuals with unused, unwanted or expired medications are urged to take them to a collection site for proper disposal. Local sites can be found at the “RxTake-Back Day” tab on the doj.state.wi.us web site. There is a disposal facility at the Marinette County Law Enforcement Center on County T, Marinette, and some clinics in the county provide disposal as well.

The AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW) hailed Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature for its adoption of the HOPE legislative package. A recent ARCW news release states: “Because injection drug use remains one of the primary ways that HIV and hepatitis C are spread, ARCW has conducted aggressive prevention programs targeting injection drug users since 1994. The prevention programs carried out by ARCW are based on the belief there is value in all human life and that every day presents a new opportunity to help someone battling addiction find the treatment they need to find sobriety.”

The ARCW news release also cited the lifesaving value of Naloxone, which can save the life of an individual experiencing an overdose by immediately counteracting the ability of the opiate to shut down the central nervous system.


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