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Walker signs bills aimed at fighting heroin
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By Taylor W. Anderson

Associated Press

MADISON - Wisconsin law enforcement groups are applauding the governor's signing of seven bills that aim to target the state's heroin epidemic, with some officials saying the package's best attribute is that it involves less, not more, punishment for drug users.

Gov. Scott Walker signed the bills, dubbed Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education or HOPE, into law Monday. All seven bills were written by Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, whose daughter has struggled with a heroin addiction and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison in 2009.

Heroin use and overdose deaths have increased dramatically in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Justice. The increase mirrors the national trend of prescription opiate addicts turning to heroin.

The package includes additional funding for new and existing treatment facilities, as well as short-term sanctions for parole and probation violators. County and municipal leaders say the legislation will shift the state's approach to dealing with heroin and opiate users, putting fewer people in jail and instead promoting treatment and awareness.

"Very little of this is law enforcement oriented," said Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg.

Klomberg has been pushing heroin and opiate awareness and treatment since the drug's rise in popularity beginning in the mid-2000s, he said. The HOPE legislation will help bring awareness across the state and help counties that don't have the resources to fight the problem, he said.

"There's a common view that law enforcement is the magic bullet to this stuff," Klomberg said. But he added, "We've got to find ways to deliver services to those individuals and give them the opportunity to break the addiction."

Other bills in the package include one that provides a level of legal immunity to someone who helps during a drug overdose and one that allows first responders to use the drug Narcan, which counteracts heroin overdoses.

Between 2005 and 2010, the proportion of drug-related deaths involving heroin more than doubled, according to a 2012 state report on alcohol and drug use. Other opiates were the most prevalent in drug-related deaths in Wisconsin during that time, the report said.

Outagamie County, which supported the bills, has already taken what board supervisor Jim Duncan called an aggressive approach to dealing with heroin use and abuse in the state, stressing rehabilitation and treatment and overall community awareness.

"We don't have to put people in jail, and the good result of that is also we turn offenders into taxpayers," Duncan said.

Duncan said the board's approach has lowered rates of recidivism and has helped save the county $1.2 million annually through treatment rather than incarceration.

Kyle Christianson, director of government affairs with the Wisconsin Counties Association, said the new legislation should have a similar cost-saving effect at both the local and state level.

Nygren found widespread support from colleagues in pushing the package. Not one bill faced a dissenting vote.

"The spiral of opiate and heroin abuse is unrelenting but so is our will to defeat it," Attorney general J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement. "And today marks an important step in ridding our great state of this evil."