With President Trump’s announcement declaring the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, policymakers should start considering how to respond more rapidly to prevent epidemics from developing.  The vast expense of the epidemic is mind-boggling.  Our courts and hospitals have spent so much money combatting the abuse of opioids. Many Wisconsin counties are pursuing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to help offset the costs to the public.  Then there is the human cost – which cannot be offset.  Last year alone, more than 1,000 Wisconsinites died from opioid abuse, continuing an upward trend that began around 2000.

Wisconsin recognized the need for a new response to the opioid crisis over ten years ago.  Incarceration as a response had proven ineffective, and the push for treatment courts has grown.  The consensus was that treatment courts were a more cost-effective, safer, and efficient way to fight addiction. Alternatives like pretrial diversion programs offer hope that addiction habits and behaviors can be changed. Wisconsin lawmakers largely agreed that imprisonment should be used as a last resort in these cases.  However, the implementation of alternatives was slow.  Local efforts to implement treatment courts and diversion programs began in the 1990s.  Wisconsin’s first state-coordinated effort to create drug courts was in 2007.  The effort only began after a seven-year period that saw annual deaths from opioid overdoses triple.

The point is that too often policy takes too long to adequately address a crisis.  The ballooning of the opioid crisis should be a wake up call to identifying issues earlier – and with faster responses.  For Wisconsin, this means taking a very active approach to the growing meth problem.  Data from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections shows that prison admissions for charges related to meth use have doubled in the last several years.  Five years ago, opioid-related prison sentences were about four times higher than meth-related charges.  Last year, the number was only twice as high.  Gross numbers are somewhat irrelevant as the trend of significantly higher prison admissions is strikingly similar to the upward trend of opioid-based admissions.

Today, the response to the opioid crisis has evolved into a multi-disciplined approach. The President’s declaration represents a shift in attitude about how to respond to addiction.  For the first time in modern America, the response to the problem from the court systems and policymakers is aimed more towards treatment than incarceration – working to coordinate the courts with the health system and with law enforcement to create a balanced approach.  Unfortunately, in Wisconsin the response to the growing meth problem has not been as robust.  Different addictions require different treatments and approaches.  One lesson Wisconsin policymakers should take away from the national and local opioid crisis is the necessity for early identification of a dangerous trend with a desire for a rapid response.  The growing meth problem has presented them with an opportunity to attempt to cut off the trend before it becomes a crisis.  Hopefully, they will do so.