‘Like the flip of a switch,’ fentanyl abuse surges as new criminal law takes effect

Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 5:24 PM CDT
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - In March, a new law took effect in Wisconsin increasing penalties for possessing or intending to sell fentanyl.

Possession or delivery of that drug could be charged under other more general drug laws prior to the change, but creating a law just for fentanyl shows how much of a problem and threat it is, according to investigators

Within the first few weeks of its existence, the Brown County Drug Task Force already referred charges to the district attorney using that new law.

Investigators say it’s a sign of the times, and a scary one at that.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s incredible. Typically the drug trends change more gradually, and it’s like somebody flipped a switch,” says Lt. Matt Ronk, director of the Brown County Drug Task Force. “It’s scary, and I now I’ve said that to you in interviews before, but this is a whole different ballgame.”

Ronk has seen plenty of changes in drug use and trends working in the drug task force the last 11 years, but nothing quite mimics what’s unfolding with fentanyl the last several months.

“The first quarter of this year, through March 31st, we’ve seized more fentanyl than we did in all of 2020,” says Ronk.

Sometimes it’s mixed with other drugs, like heroin, meth or cocaine, but most commonly now, Ronk says police are finding it in pill form, something called M30 pills.

They’re supposed to look like oxycodone but instead they’re full of fentanyl, and every pill contains a different amount.

As use surges across the country, the DEA issued new warnings about the danger they carry.

It doesn’t take much to get a potentially lethal dose.

A small paperclip weighs about 1,000 milligrams. The DEA says as little as two milligrams of fentanyl can be deadly.

“That’s potentially devastating to a community,” says Ronk.

He points to price and the ability to manufacture fentanyl, not grow it that likely makes it more desirable and accessible.

Police try to keep up with enforcement, but there’s so much, it’s next to impossible.

Ronk says he could put every one of his investigators on fentanyl buys and barely touch the problem.

Lawmakers are working on it, too, enacting a new law less than three weeks ago specifically targeting possession and intent to deliver fentanyl with increased penalties.

Tuesday, the Brown County Drug Task Force referred charges for the first time using the new law.

“It slightly increases the penalties, but for my purposes, it doesn’t affect my job at all if they made this law or didn’t, because I’m still going to arrest drug dealers,” says Ronk. “If (our investigators) can buy fentanyl or... buy meth or cocaine, (we’re) going to buy fentanyl first because it’s important to get that fentanyl off the street, number one. We could potentially save a life, number two. And number three, we’re going to put somebody in jail that needs to be there.”

But one single effort, unfortunately, isn’t going to stop what he calls a scary surge.

“Some people intentionally carry Narcan around with them, knowing they’re going to overdose, and statistically speaking, your third overdose is going to be fatal,” he adds.

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