People who take opiates for pain relief do not always realize how addictive they can be, Rep. Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse, said.

Two college students in the LaCrosse area received opiates for pain relief after they suffered burns while they were cooking. After the students healed, they kept the leftover pills, Billings said.

As school-related stress increased for one of the students, the student began to take some of the leftover pills because they remembered it helped them sleep better, Billings said. The student turned to self-prescribing, finished their leftover pills and began using their roommate’s leftover pills.

“(The doctors) warned her not to take it with food, but they didn’t warn her about the addictive quality of it,” Billings said. “She thought, this must be safe, this must be safe, my doctor gave it to me, prescribed it to me, so this must be safe.”

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After the student went to a counselor at their school, Billings said, they finally resolved the problem of their addiction.

This is only one of many similar stories which has happened to people throughout the state.

Through three executive orders, Gov. Scott Walker is looking to engage state agencies like the Department of Corrections in the fight against cases of opioid addiction in Wisconsin.

“This is a public health crisis, and that’s why I’m calling a special session of the Legislature and directing state agencies to ramp up the state’s response,” Walker said in a statement.

Walker’s executive orders are based on a report from the Governor’s Task Force on Opioid Abuse and look to change how state agencies handle opioid and drug addiction.

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According to one of the executive orders, the DOC will work with Wisconsin Department of Health Services to better judge the total number of fatal and nonfatal heroin overdoses.

The DOC will also develop an opioid abuse web-based training program for their staff. It targets staff directly involved with inmates who are known to have problems with addiction and those who are potentially at-risk, according to the executive order.

Billings, who is a member of the task force, said having better communication between departments will be good for Wisconsin, especially if they are working toward helping people recover.

According to the Task Force’s report, people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. In 2016, 1 in 20 Americans aged 12 and older reported using painkillers for nonmedical purposes.

The DOC will also continue a pilot program giving volunteer participants a drug called Vivitrol as part of the order. Vivitrol relieves symptoms of withdrawal for people who are addicted to opioids, Billings said. This helps the participants recover from their addiction.

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But Billings said opponents believe this program has become partially controversial. Taking Vivitrol allows participants to get over their addiction but can have fatal effects if participants relapse. Even if participants take a little bit of heroin after taking Vivitrol and getting over their addiction, they can die.

Opponents of the program question when participants should stop taking Vivitrol and if the program simply substitutes one drug for another, Billings added.

Responding to opponents, Billings said doctors have begun to view addiction as a disease. She said diseases in general, like diabetes, cannot be treated without medicine and needs Vivitrol despite its effects.

DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook said there are currently 54 participants in the program.

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Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said he has been working alongside his colleagues on the Task Force since 2013 to combat the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic.

“We have made many strides forward in the fight, but there is still more work to be done,” Nygren said.