When does it stop being a party and start becoming a problem? Is there a way to steer clear of addiction? Every Wednesday, Mike McGowan, host of the podcast "Avoiding the Addiction Affliction," explores substance use disorders with expert guests. The podcast series is sponsored by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Original cover art created by
Kelly P. of Kenosha, Wisconsin
Congressman Bryan Steil
Wisconsin's First Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives
Congressman Bryan Steil discusses the ongoing opiate epidemic and what the federal government is doing to address the flood of fentanyl analogs coming into the country while also assisting those in need. Representative Steil believes it’s a combination of education, interdiction, legislation, and treatment that will make the difference in stemming the tide of the opiate epidemic. Congressman Steil represents Wisconsin’s First Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. Congressman Steil can be reached at https://steil.house.gov. If you or a loved one needs help, it is available. To contact the Hope Council on Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse, call 262-658-8166, or explore their website at https://www.hopecouncil.org. You can also find AA meetings here: https://mtg.area75.org/meetings.html?dist=7 and NA meetings here: https://namilwaukee.org/meetings/
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[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. We've had a lot of discussions lately about the ongoing opiate and street drug epidemic in our country. We're gonna continue that discussion today with a very special guest Congressman Brian Steil. Congressman Steil represents Wisconsin's First Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.
[00:00:37] Welcome Congressman. Thanks for joining me.
[00:00:39] Bryan: Thanks for having me on Mike.
[00:00:41] Mike: Well, you know, I've, I've been reading a lot of what you've put out and Representative Steil you've had held round tables, written and spoken extensively on the risks and dangers of fentanyl. This is an ongoing concern for you right?
[00:00:53] Bryan: It's a, it's a huge issue.
[00:00:55] And something that should concern everyone when you realize it's the number one cause of death for people aged 18 to 45, kills more people in car accidents, heart attack, COVID and it, it hits home. When you realize that last year in Kenosha County, 48, people died of a fentanyl related overdose death, and 68 people died from a fentanyl related overdose death in Racine County.
[00:01:17] And so this isn't just abstract numbers. This is friends and neighbors. And I've spoken to countless moms and dads who've lost a son or a daughter to a fentanyl related death. And the, the scary part is it's often people who are first time drug users, it's people who don't realize they're getting fentanyl in the first place.
[00:01:36] You know, as, as you know, Mike. Almost nobody goes out looking to get a fentanyl high they're going out to get some other type of drug whether or not that's a pressed pill, it's marijuana, it's heroin. And they go out to get that only to find out later that, that, that that drug has been laced with a legal fentanyl.
[00:01:55] And the ramifications of that can be really, really scary to the point that thousands of Americans are losing their lives due to this drug.
[00:02:03] Mike: Well, and as you, and as you said, fentanyl, it seems to be in everything. I mean, I I've even had police tell us it's in, it's in marijuana for crying out loud.
[00:02:12] Bryan: Exactly. And, and it's, and it's important, right? Your listeners on the podcast, you probably understand this, but what we're talking about is the, the illicit illegal fentanyl, not the, the pharmaceutical grade fentanyl, that's being appropriately administrated by, you know, an EMS team or your, your local ER, doctor, we're talking about the illicit fentanyl that's in large part coming across the border from a production location in Mexico, into the United States.
[00:02:36] And it's through these criminal gangs that are then lacing it into other illegal drugs. It's wildly addictive. It gives a very meaningful high but it's also incredibly deadly. I mean, two milligrams. And can, we're talking just a few grains of salt worth of this drug in a pure form is enough to kill someone.
[00:02:55] And at the us Mexico border last year the federal government confiscated 3 billion lethal doses of fentanyl. And that's, that's where they confiscated, which is telling you. You know, countless lethal doses are making their way into the United States in these drug gangs who are trafficking other types of drugs.
[00:03:13] Like you noted marijuana it could be heroin, it could be cocaine. It could be, you know, any type of drug. They're lacing these drugs, meaning they're inserting a little tiny bit of fentanyl into the drug with the, with their goal. The criminal gangs goal is to get you addicted to the drug so that you come back for more.
[00:03:29] And so the result of this is a really a dangerous and vicious cycle of lots of folks who are finding themselves ingesting fentanyl when they don't realize it.
[00:03:40] Mike: And, and not only not realizing it, but I've, I've seen it. And I'm sure you have too pills that look like the real pill.
[00:03:47] It looks like a Percocet. And those pills aren't being pressed here in the United States, they're being pressed out of the country.
[00:03:53] Bryan: Exactly when you're, when you're buying a drug on the street. The danger is quite real because criminal gangs know that they can make a lot of money on this.
[00:04:01] And it's sophisticated international actors. I mean, this isn't, you know, some guy down the street figuring this all out by themselves. I mean, this is international criminal gangs, and as you correctly noted, many of these pressed pills. That are, are made to look and do look like other pharmaceutical grade pills.
[00:04:18] They're not, which is why they're on the streets illegally. And people are taking, 'em not realizing the real serious ramifications that it can have to their health, but also to their life.
[00:04:27] Mike: You know, you were, you were a co-sponsor of the Halt Fentanyl Act and it's forgive me, but it's hard to keep track of every piece of legislation.
[00:04:36] So where are we at with making fentanyl a schedule one, permanent schedule, one drug or any other piece of legislation that you know is out there?
[00:04:45] Bryan: Yeah this bill in particular is one where Congress continues to kick the can down the road. I think we need to make sure that it remains a schedule one. So that we can really hold these criminals accountable for trafficking in fentanyl. And so it's on a temporary status as a schedule one drug. But I think we should make it permanent, but let's step back for a second, maybe. What does it mean to be a schedule one drug? What it really means is it is a federal designation that this is so dangerous.
[00:05:10] That we need to do everything we can to stop it. And when you talk to our district attorneys and we held a round table in Racine County, we talked to Racine's DA, I've talked to law enforcement in Kenosha and across our state, they wanna make sure that they have the resources. So when they catch somebody who is trying to utilize illegal fentanyl to make money, that they can be held accountable.
[00:05:32] And it's the schedule one status that assists us in doing that.
[00:05:36] Mike: Well, you know, they're they keep changing the analogs, right? There's over 30 of them.
[00:05:40] Bryan: Yeah.
[00:05:40] Mike: So when you write legislation, do you write it to anticipate further changes in the chemistry? I, I don't know how that goes.
[00:05:48] Bryan: Great question. And so this is where fentanyl's really unique and you correctly identified it is these criminal gangs.
[00:05:55] Began taking the chemical compound that makes up what we'll call legal fentanyl, pharmaceutical grade fentanyl that might be at a hospital. And then they tweaked the chemistry to it by moving, you know, one atom a carbon one way or the other. So you'd have the same high, same impact, but technically on a, on a chemistry basis, it was technically a different substance.
[00:06:14] And originally that was a mechanism that these criminal gangs used to work around federal law to say, aha, this drug, this new drug that's one atom different is now legal and is no longer a restricted drug. And so what we did at the federal level is we said, we're gonna take this whole family of drugs, the whole family of illicit fentanyl, and say, we're gonna classify the whole bucket as an illegal substance, so that even if you're a criminal gang and you figure out how to tweak it by one atom, you know, one oxygen, one nitrogen atom, one carbon atom one way or the other, that that doesn't matter. You're doing the same thing and we're gonna hold you accountable for the same reasons. And so for the, the Halt Act what we're actually trying to do for the first time.
[00:07:00] Is say, we're gonna take this whole bucket of drugs and we're gonna make them all illegal. And it's really the only way to do this because we're up against sophisticated international criminal gangs, manipulating the chemical makeup of the drug to try to get around U.S. Law but all for the same purpose to make money, to make people addicted.
[00:07:19] And they don't care that they're risking Americans' lives to do it.
[00:07:22] Mike: You know, and, and then you get down to the street level and I've been told that so many of these deals are made over Snapchat and other social media. So we've spoken to law enforcement and it's not easy to track that stuff down. Could you speak to that and maybe how cooperative the social media platforms have been in working with you all?
[00:07:46] Bryan: It's a, it's a great point that you bring up Mike and, you know, gone are the days where you had to go find somebody on the street corner to make a deal. And here are the days where you can leverage technology. You know, almost everybody has a smartphone in their pocket. And you can leverage social media and other items to connect buyer to seller.
[00:08:04] That's true in a good way, right? If it's, you're trying to sell the sofa in your house, and you're trying to find a neighbor who needs a used sofa but it can also be used in an evil way where you have somebody praying upon often younger folks in providing them easy access to illegal drugs.
[00:08:20] That's really hard to see. Because instead of that transaction occurring in a street corner, or maybe there's some eyes and ears on the situation. Now it's between two people. You can drive over and drop the drug off at your house and take your money and leave you there to ultimately die. If you have an illicit fentanyl amount that's lethal, which is shockingly often is the case. And so we need to remain vigilant. We're working with the large tech companies. They don't want this on their platform either. But to stop it is incredibly complicated and we have to hold the big tech companies accountable, where they're not doing enough to prevent it from occurring.
[00:08:55] Mike: Hmm. How do you do that?
[00:08:58] Bryan: It's, it's not easy because it's a tight balance between privacy and the the opportunities there. And so it's a, it's a constant cat and mouse game. You don't want to have the federal government reading every text message in every Snapchat going between people.
[00:09:12] So that's true for a whole host of reasons. So that means that people are gonna leverage technology in both positive, you know, kind of that that might reference you might be selling your couch. And in negative ways. And so there's no perfect way to do this. But we're constantly working with the algorithms that people are seeing whether or not we're getting subpoenas and we're getting appropriate court action to be able to review the messages that are going back and forth between these drug dealers and people.
[00:09:39] But that's gonna remain a a vicious cat and mouse game, cuz there's no silver bullet. Barring ripping away all your first amendment rights, which I don't support and giving full surveillance to the government. I don't support that. And so the, I think the answer to it is really informing people of the risks they're taking by engaging in this illegal behavior.
[00:10:00] That's one, so that we slow down the, the demand side. So people aren't going on to Snapchat to try to buy the drug in the first place. But two is, we can also control it on the supply side. And the vast majority of these drugs are coming into the United States from Mexico. And it's the importance of making sure that we're securing all of this all the contraband that's coming into the United States of America is one of the reasons I think it's important to secure the U.S. Mexico border.
[00:10:28] Mike: You know, so I can't tell my kids that you're watching them on Snapchat. It might keep 'em off social media a little bit. [laugh]
[00:10:35] Bryan: Yeah. I mean, right. I mean, that's that's but this is this cat and mouse game that's probably been going on for generations. I can only imagine. You know, there are parents sitting around 60 years ago, concerned about what two people would say to each other on a telephone, saying this telephone is a dangerous tool to have in our household.
[00:10:49] And you know, it, it's a challenge and technology always has an upside and a downside. The upside is it's a great tool for us to be able to connect, but there is a huge downside risk and it's the importance of parents talking to their children. But also us informing not only kids, but also, you know, younger adults, people in their twenties and thirties are, are victims of this as well.
[00:11:10] About the real and meaningful risks of engaging in illegal drug use because the risks are so high that we have thousands of people dying across the United States. Again, the number one cause of death, people aged 18 to 45, but it hits home when you realize that between Racine and Kenosha over a hundred people died from an illicit fentanyl overdose death just last year,
[00:11:34] Mike: You know, and I've had a lot of conversations on here with people who are recovering and it's a fascinating conversation because they don't want it. They don't want it. They don't want it. They don't want it. And then they want it. There there's that moment where all of a sudden they want to get better. So treatment, right, is also an important component in the whole picture.
[00:11:56] Bryan: Yeah. You're, you're, you're spot on. And that's where we're looking for, you know, our health professionals to assist people in breaking the vicious cycle of addiction.
[00:12:05] And, and again, it's those that are addicted, but it's also sometimes first time users, right? So this is one of these multifaceted problems that requires a multifaceted solution. And so we gotta be attacking it from every angle. We gotta be attacking it from people that are addicted, that they're getting the resources that they need from our, our local health professionals, to be able to break that, that vicious cycle of addiction.
[00:12:27] We need to be getting information out to people to prevent people from becoming first time users. We gotta restrict supply. We gotta give law enforcement the tools that they need. And so it is a challenging issue but it is gonna take in all of the above approach.
[00:12:41] Mike: You know, I'll, I'll be conscious of your time, but end with this because you, you just said first time users, the moms who we've spoken to, and I know your office has spoken to them as well, talked about informational campaigns on college campuses and in high schools, making Narcan available. Education and prevention, even as a law enforcement officer said to me last week is, and also an important component of this.
[00:13:07] Bryan: Without a doubt. I mean, this impacts everybody. I mean, we saw U.S. Military academy cadets find themselves victims of fentanyl when they were making a a bad decision. I mean, this, this happens to people that you would think are, you know, upstanding citizens. They've never made mistakes in their life before.
[00:13:23] There's some of the, the, the people that you would look up to but one time one bad decision. Can take you down a horrific path and that's, that's the concern and the importance of getting this information out and then you're right, right. Narcan and other other tools allow us to be able to save people's lives.
[00:13:40] That's essential as well. And it's going to be in all of the above approach to tackle this problem because it's not gonna go away quickly, but we can do it. If we take all the reasonable ways we can to attack it from every angle.
[00:13:54] Mike: You know, I just appreciate you taking the time to not only talk to us, but also continue to take the time to make this an issue, when we have so many other issues going on.
[00:14:03] Thanks for joining us, Congressman.
[00:14:06] Bryan: Thanks for having me on Mike.
[00:14:07] Mike: And for those of you who are listening, you know, I usually end this by saying, stay safe. Well, stay safe, but make good choices as well.
[00:14:16] [END AUDIO]
The Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition’s mission is to support networking, encourage education, explore gaps, and realize solutions to improve treatment and reduce alcohol and other drug abuse in our community with a primary focus on families.