Increased access to Narcan, easier testing for fentanyl raised as ways to stop opioid deaths

State health officials seek input on ways to spend settlement money from opioid lawsuits

Syringes of the opioid painkiller fentanyl
This Friday, June 1, 2018, photo, shows syringes of the opioid painkiller fentanyl in an inpatient pharmacy. Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

Wisconsin is looking at ways to continue efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction using hundreds of millions of dollars expected from court settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health Services held the first of 12 listening sessions where drug counselors, first responders and the public could provide input on how they would like the money spent.

Several speakers at the online forum said they want the department to continue subsidizing the cost of Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoes. Others would like to see the overdose drug more readily available.

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“Maybe this is a little peculiar, but I think Narcan should be available in places like libraries, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotic Anonymous, churches and in the bathrooms of bars and restaurants,” said Kristin Deprey, Alcohol and Drug Abuse supervisor for St. Croix County Health and Human Services. “I think only having Narcan available with emergency services and treatment providers isn’t necessarily reaching everybody that it could benefit.”

According DHS, Narcan can be purchased without a prescription at more than 500 pharmacies in Wisconsin. About 100 organizations across the state offer it at no cost to people who attend a free training session.

Opioids are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Wisconsin. There were a record number of deaths from the drugs, 1,227, in 2020.

Another issue brought up during the listening session is that of drugs being laced with more than one substance.

Last fall, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued a public safety alert after a spike in fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and meth, which a DEA agent told WPR was causing a “staggering number of potentially lethal overdoses” in Wisconsin and other states.

A bipartisan bill introduced in October 2021 would decriminalize fentanyl test strips, which can detect the potent drug and prevent these type of overdoses.

During an Oct. 20, 2021 hearing before the state Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, spoke to the dangers of fentanyl.

“You can’t see fentanyl, you can’t smell fentanyl, and you can’t taste it. It is impossible to know if any drug has been laced with fentanyl. This is why it is easy for so many to overdose on it, whether using it purposefully or accidentally,” James said.

Fentanyl is a manmade painkiller that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

The last listening session is scheduled for Jan. 28. Next steps for DHS after the listening sessions have yet to be announced.