This article originally appeared on Fox47.com and can be found here.
By Brady Mallory | Fox47 News Madison
MAIDSON, Wis (Fox47) — Imagine a dinner table with an empty chair. Then think about the loved one who is not in that chair because he or she died from a drug overdose. That’s the reality for tens of thousands of families in the U.S., and it’s getting worse. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health, fentanyl overdose deaths grew in Wisconsin from 651 in 2019 to 1,280 last year. That’s a 97-percent jump. Local police are seeing similar growth in fentanyl overdoses in Dane County. That’s why a local group is giving certain people, who struggle with addiction, some alternatives for help that don’t involve being treated like a criminal.
You never know how many people are walking around, carrying the weight of addiction.
“It’s just crept into areas of our community at an unprecedented level at this point,” Officer Tom Coyne, addiction resource officer with the Madison Police Department, said.
Coyne says Dane County is seeing a spike in overdoses. The main reason? Drugs secretly laced with fentanyl.
“We say all substances have fentanyl in them these days. There’s no real safe product to use anymore,” Seth Sanders, community paramedic for the Madison Fire Department, said.
Here’s a group that wants to help. You’ll find Coyne, Sanders, and a few others in a black mini van, hoping to make a huge difference. They are members of the Madison Area Addiction Recovery Initiative; MAARI. It’s a group that responds to people who are overdosing or survive overdoses. They come with life-saving equipment and Narcan, but they also offer individuals a second chance.
“Active addiction, substance use disorder is not a problem you can arrest away,” Coyne said.
Instead of facing criminal charges for overdosing or a drug offense, MAARI connects Dane County residents with treatment options and support. There’s a catch; any offense has to be a low level, non-violent crime.
“Charges are held, people are plugged in with recovery support in the community for six months and sometimes forward. Once they’ve successfully completed the program, charges go no further,” Coyne said.
“I’ve had a lot of friends and close family members suffer from addiction,” Joel Grunder, a peer support specialist and recovery coach, said.
Grunder says getting people in treatment instead of in jail can help them stay on a path to recovery and reduce relapses, and deadly overdoses.
“There’s no replacement for those we’ve lost,” Grunder said.
You never know who is walking around, carrying the weight of addiction. Members hope MAARI helps end the stigma, and allow individuals to step forward.
“It’s a disease and they need help with that. They deserve that help. If someone had cancer, we would help them with that sickness,” Seth Sanders said.
“This to me, legitimately feels like you’re there on the frontlines of helping people,” Coyne said.
The MAARI program began in September 2020. It is a three year grant-funded program. According to MPD, MAARI builds upon the successes of a previous pre-arrest program.