Milwaukee, WI – The expanse of Milwaukee is in a crisis, particularly the lower income neighborhoods. The Near South Side area, specifically, where 51% of drug overdoses have taken place, with numbers steadily rising. In 2019, there were 16 methamphetamine overdoses. That number rose to 31 in 2020. According to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, 546 were due to opioids, and of those, 400 were due to fentanyl overdoses.
One way to prevent more overdoses is illegal in Milwaukee – fentanyl testing strips. The small pieces of paper can spot any presence of fentanyl in pills, powder, or injectables.
Right now, they are considered drug paraphernalia and are illegal to use not only by the general population, but by first responders as well.
There has been a push by Milwaukee lawmakers to make fentanyl testing strips legal, such as Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (12th district Alderperson) and Lena Taylor (4th district alderperson). Although these are the primary politicians in Milwaukee who have fought the battle to legalize the strips, the charge is being led by volunteers, people who have unfortunately lost family or friends to opioids.
One of those people is Lydia Hernandez, who works with Milwaukee grassroots organization “Mother Warriors.” For 34 years, the group – all mothers – help other mothers with the day-to-day fatigue and tribulations of raising children.
“We generally distribute diapers and hold food drives. We also help families apply for state benefits because sometimes a lot of the organizations in town can be full and people that don’t speak English could be daunted or overwhelmed when applying at those places,” Lydia tells me.
For the last five years, Lydia has been working at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, a free clinic that has been serving Milwaukee for the last fifty years with programs that assist with issues ranging from dental to behavioral health.
“I have always had a passion for helping people fill out their insurance forms because I am able to read them so well and properly explain to people what they all mean,” Lydia tells me. She has been able to work through many tribulations with many different people, no matter what it may be. The most important and prevalent issue here, however, is substance abuse.
Sadly, in April 2020, Lydia’s 27-year-old daughter, Ly’Marita Cheeks, passed away. Cause of death –a lethal dose of fentanyl. “She was in a car accident a few years ago and was prescribed percocet for the pain. She kept doing it after her prescription ran out because she had unfortunately become addicted. The one she took that night was the one that killed her,” Lydia explains.
“If I can help just one person, that’s all I care about. I wanted to go after the hotel, the ones who sold her the drugs, and even the cops who shrugged it off as just another OD,” Lydia said. “This could have been easily prevented had she been able to know what she was taking. I don’t condone drug abuse and I wish my daughter wasn’t addicted. There are ways this can be prevented, however.”
Lydia has started this crusade and has worked tirelessly to get the strips legalized, but has not connected with other lawmakers in the area as of yet.
“While I don’t condone drug use, there are ways to be safe, and I hope to push for this at the next city council meeting, where I will show up with the Mother Warriors,” she adds.
Senator Lena Taylor told the Urban Milwaukee the fentanyl testing strips “should be treated the same as Naloxone or Narcan, because they have saved lives.” Both are used to treat opioid overdoses. There are other groups dedicated to the legalization of the testing strips, such as HAVOC Milwaukee, but are required to find other avenues due to the fact that the leader, Rafael Mercado, has a felony on his record.
“It is important we do not play politics with this or red tape,” Mercado said in an interview with CBS 58, a news source in Milwaukee, WI.
The opioid crisis remains a war fought behind closed doors and swept under the rug. These neighborhood crusaders seek to end that.