The opioid crisis that has been damaging communities and destroying lives in Michigan and across America is not just a public health crisis; it’s a humanitarian disaster. Between 1999 and 2012, prescription drug overdoses in Michigan tripled and heroin overdoses quadrupled. Michigan now ranks 15th in the nation for overdoses.
When confronted with problems of this scale it’s not enough for our top federal and state law enforcement officials to take a “this isn’t in our jurisdiction” approach. When I was U.S. Attorney for Western Michigan under President Obama, we realized early on that we needed to take a different approach to this epidemic because there were legitimate law enforcement and criminal issues in play. Our focus was prevention, enforcement, and treatment.
As U.S. attorney, I regularly educated people — especially teenagers and their parents or guardians — about the dangers lurking in their medicine cabinets. These lessons are simple but life-saving. For example, the non-medical use of prescription drugs of any kind can be just as dangerous as street drugs like heroin and cocaine. The path to addiction often begins when one person uses another person’s prescription drugs. And people who misuse prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to end up as heroin users.
In addition, under my leadership the U.S. Attorney’s Office vigorously prosecuted those who illegally distributed prescription drugs and heroin. We worked collaboratively with federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify and prosecute drug-trafficking organizations. We also targeted rogue doctors who feed this epidemic for their own financial gain.
A federal response, however, only goes so far. Michigan must follow this model and take several immediate steps.
First, the state must require physicians and licensed prescribers to use the state-run drug monitoring program called the Michigan Automated Prescription System, which displays a patient’s prescription history for controlled substances and prevents “doctor shopping.” Only 14 percent of physicians and licensed prescribers currently use MAPS when prescribing a controlled substance.
Moreover, law enforcement agencies need reasonable access to this system, without identifying any individual patient’s information. This access is critical to identify and prosecute “pill mill” doctors who feed this crisis.
Second, Michigan medical examiners should specify the drug causing an overdose death. Even if other drugs are in the victim’s system, medical examiners can often determine which substance caused the death. Absent this reform, Michigan will never understand the scope of this epidemic.
Third, Michigan should share real-time data among agencies, including information about drug arrests, drug seizures, pharmacy robberies, overdose deaths, emergency room visits, birth rates, hospital discharge codes, and number of naloxone doses administered, which is a medication used to treat an opioid overdose. Michigan needs to create a data hub with data-tracking software. This approach will allow state agencies to target law enforcement and treatment programs in problem areas. Indiana has adopted this approach and Michigan should follow suit.
Lastly, the Michigan attorney general should hold accountable pharmaceutical companies that employed deceptive marketing to increase the sale of opioids, thereby contributing to the current crisis. Other states, including Ohio, have taken legal action. Michigan should do the same and use any penalty funds to further this fight.
It’s time for Michigan’s attorney general to step outside the box and attack this epidemic.
Pat Miles Jr. served as U.S. attorney in the Western District of Michigan under President Barack Obama.