Vivitrol (copy) (copy)

Vivitrol blocks the brain's receptors for opiates, rendering drugs such as heroin or oxycodone ineffective. 

PHOTO BY AMBER ARNOLD -- State Journal

Nathan Lecker received his first Vivitrol injection on June 27, 2016. He's received 11 since then, and on Friday, he will join six other former Department of Corrections inmates as the first participants to complete the agency's opioid addiction treatment program. 

"I feel really confident in my ability to go on with the rest of my life in a healthy, positive manner," Lecker, 30, said in an interview. 

Gov. Scott Walker's 2015-17 state budget included $1.6 million to fund a new treatment program for offenders being released in northeastern Wisconsin. The pilot project offers intensive AODA treatment and monthly injections of naltrexone, commonly known as Vivitrol, a drug that blocks opioid cravings and receptors.

The drug has come to be preferred as a non-addictive, non-intoxicating method to treat addiction. 

The first round of injections was administered to offenders in April 2016. Currently, 87 participants are receiving treatment. New participants can enroll through the end of June. 

To be eligible, an offender must be nearing release or already under community supervision within DOC, and medically determined to have an opiate addiction. Participation is voluntary. 

The program's goal is "to try to reduce some of the overdoses, relapses, and just overall improve the lifestyle of those we supervise who have an opioid addiction," said Michael Meulemans, program and policy analyst with the agency's Division of Community Corrections. 

While an integral part of the program, the injections themselves are only part of the year-long treatment process, Meulemans said. 

The medication helps participants start to think more clearly and process more deeply the other aspects of their treatment, including counseling, he said. 

When Lecker, who lives in Green Bay, first heard about the program, he was hesitant. He first started using opioids in 2009, and by 2012 he was using about a gram of heroin a day, he said.

Lecker's criminal record, most of which is substance abuse-related, dates back to 2005. The first time he was incarcerated, he said, he relapsed within about two hours of his release. Before his second incarceration in 2014, he had achieved six months of sobriety. But nothing stuck. 

"I did two AODA programs and I didn't have the mentality to just hold to it," Lecker said. "I thought I could beat the system and I looked at everything as kind of a game. That didn’t work for me. I had to get my life together."

He decided to give it a try, in conjunction with his participation in the earned release program.

For the last year, he has received a Vivitrol shot every 28 days. Once a week, he is tested for drug use and sees a counselor.

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Lecker's last scheduled counseling session is on Friday after his graduation from the program, but he said he's planning to schedule more sessions. He'd like to continue receiving Vivitrol injections for another six months or so, but right now he doesn't have insurance. He said he's looking into his options and hoping to find a plan that will cover more treatment until he's more comfortable on his own. 

The treatment program is "probably one of the best safety nets that I've been offered," Lecker said. It was especially helpful to have a plan in place for his release, he said.

"I faced a lot of struggles immediately following my release," Lecker said. "Without the program I probably would have screwed up a few times."

For now, the program only operates in northeastern Wisconsin, in Waupaca, Door, Outagamie, Kewaunee, Brown, Manitowoc, Winnebago and Calumet counties. That region saw a 111 percent spike in heroin cases from 2012 to 2014, according to the state crime laboratory. In the same time period, Milwaukee County saw an 83 percent increase, while Dane, Green and Rock counties altogether saw a 58 percent jump. 

The region composed of Fond du Lac, Washington, Sheboygan, Jefferson, Dodge, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties experienced a 122 percent increase in the same period, making it a potential candidate for services if the program is expanded.

This program is one of several efforts made by the state in recent years to curb heroin and opiate abuse in Wisconsin, including legislative efforts led by state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and a task force created by Walker. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.