Wisconsin Legislature set to pass bills targeting opioids

MADISON  — The Wisconsin Legislature was set to pass a package of bills Tuesday designed to combat opioid abuse, which has reached epidemic proportions and causes more overdose deaths than there are traffic deaths in the state.

The nine bills up for a Senate vote have bipartisan approval and were expected to be quickly signed by Gov. Scott Walker, who called lawmakers into a special session to take up the bills and draw attention to opioid abuse. The Assembly was to vote on two other opioid-related proposals, as well.

While the measures have drawn bipartisan support, some critics have argued they wouldn't go far enough to reduce the number of overdose deaths in the state. Drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin have doubled since 2005 and surpassed the number of people killed in car crashes since 2008.

The bills up for final passage in the Senate would expand treatment options, increase training for doctors and school staff, create a charter high school for recovering addicts, spend more money on programs to divert addicts from going to jail and hire additional state drug agents to combat trafficking.

The Assembly was to vote on a pair of other bills that have yet to come up in the Senate.

One would allow emergency and involuntary commitment for drug addicts. The proposal sets up the same process for them as existing protocols for involuntary commitment of alcoholics: three adults could petition a judge to place the person in county custody if the person can't control his or her drug use and is impairing or endangering his or her health.

The other measure would ensure that someone who overdoses would be immune from probation or parole revocation if he or she enters a treatment program. District attorneys would have to offer a deferred prosecution agreement that includes treatment if the person is subject to a possession charge.

Republican Rep. John Nygren, of Marinette, is the lead sponsor on all the bills, which grew out of a task force Walker convened on the issue. Nygren's daughter, Cassie, has struggled with heroin for years and he has become the public face of the Legislature's battle to curb opioid abuse.

Walker has signed more than 15 Nygren bills addressing opioid abuse since 2013. Walker declared opioid abuse a public health crisis the day he called the special session on the latest package of bills, but Republicans who control the Legislature have moved slowly, spending four months getting the measures through both houses.