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Pontiac— Metro Detroit police have added another tool to their gear bags: a drug reversal spray that has saved at least 16 lives in recent months.

In January, it became legal in Michigan for police agencies to carry and administer a naloxone spray to counter suspected heroin overdoses, as paramedics have done for years.

Naloxone is an anti-opioid that can reverse the effects of heroin and prescription pain-killing drugs within seconds, returning blacked-out or unresponsive users to consciousness.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office reports making 12 such saves since March with what is formally dubbed the Opioid Overdose Prevention Program. In Macomb County, which recorded the highest percentage of heroin overdose deaths in the state in 2013, sheriff’s deputies have used such kits three times since May.

Novi police recorded their first rescue on July 31. Other police agencies are looking into training officers, purchasing kits and carrying them on patrol.

“This kit is saving lives,” Oakland County Sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Hill said.

“But drug users, especially the addicts, rarely express gratitude. They are often combative when revived and even angry that their ‘high’ has been interrupted. They overlook we just saved their life.”

In Oakland County’s most recent save, a 43-year-old Pontiac man was revived Aug. 14 after overdosing on heroin, deputies reported.

Jeannie Richards, of Waterford Township, who lost her 26-year-old son, Bryan, to a heroin overdose in 2012, runs a nonprofit support group, Bryan’s Hope, that has distributed about 100 of the kits to families and sheriff’s deputies.

“The ‘Hope’ in Bryan’s Hope stands for Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education,” she said. “That is what we are trying to do.”

Richards can attest to heroin’s spread and its deadly effects.

“We found Bryan with a syringe in his lap,” said Richards. “We had tried several programs and drugs but nothing helped. We moved out of the city and into Waterford, where we thought he would be away from the problem.

“I’ve since found out heroin is as easy to order up out here as a Domino’s pizza.”

Dr. Alan Janssen, director of emergency medicine residency at Genesys Regional Medical Center in Grand Blanc, said even veteran drug users can overdose, depending on potency of the drug or if it’s been mixed with other substances.

“Drug users and addicts think they are in control and know what they are doing when they take drugs,” said Janssen.

“A drug overdose is defined as a situation where a person’s body has more drugs in it than it can handle. If not addressed, unconsciousness and death can easily result.”

The benefit of an opioid antagonist, like naloxone or Narcan, is it will counteract a variety of street and prescription drugs, including heroin, methadone, Dilaudid, Fentanyl, Oxycontin, hydrocodone (Vicodin) and codeine.

“In an overdose situation, (heroin or another drug) stops the body’s natural inclination to breathe, and Narcan restores that function,” Janssen said.

“In a matter of minutes, they will be awake and alert and then can be monitored at a health care facility to make sure they don’t relapse,” he said. “It’s a really safe medicine, actually. There is no ill effect or downside.”

Drug users “hate” getting the medicine, he said because “it makes them feel awful after reversing their high.”

The kits, which cost $60, include rubber gloves, a CPR shield, a naloxone vial and a delivery syringe. They can be assembled in seconds. The syringe is inserted into the nostrils of a victim and squeezed, producing a spray.

“I heard about how police were using these (kits) in other states and went to our state legislators explaining we needed police officers to have the same ability as paramedics and others to help people who have overdosed,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, a former state senator. “We are often the first responders, arriving before fire departments and paramedics, and minutes can make a big difference in terms of saving someone’s life.”

Bouchard said his department was the first in Michigan to distribute kits to officers.

“We are the largest police agency in the state to be doing this,” he said. “Others are in the process of setting up their own programs. It’s been very successful.”

Nine men and three women between 17 and 58 have been saved by Oakland County deputies in the past six months. Eight of the incidents took place in Pontiac, two in Highland Township and one each in Holly and Independence Township.

Novi Officer Scott Tewes found the need to use his kit July 31 on his first shift since being trained on its use just three days earlier. Tewes responded to a 911 call along with Fire Capt. John Martin to an address on Jackson, near 11 Mile and Seeley, about an unresponsive man.

“Since 2008, we have investigated 13 overdose deaths. Each life we save represents another opportunity for a community member to seek help for their addiction,” Novi Police Chief David E. Molloy said.

Molloy said his department bought the kits because of a regional increase in heroin overdoses.

The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office would like to start using the kits, but the lack of state funding to buy them is a roadblock, said spokeswoman Paula Bridges.

“At this time, our officers don’t have this kit to use in the field,” she said. “The command executives are constantly evaluating the need for such items, so it could very well be added to our resources in the future if they determine there is a growing need based on their citizen interactions.”

The Michigan Department of Community Health recently reported deaths from drug overdoses in Michigan have reached record levels.

There were 1,533 drug overdoses in 2013, up 18 percent from 2012. Confirmed heroin deaths have increased significantly since 2002, according to state numbers, with 225 deaths in 2013, compared with 46 in 2002. Other opioid painkillers, like OxyContin and Vicodin, have been linked to 233 fatal overdoses.

Macomb County recorded 94 heroin deaths in 2013 — 1.1 per 10,000 residents — the highest rate of any county in the state.

“Drugs, whether it’s heroin or prescription painkillers, knows no borders,” Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said.

“We have unfortunately had some high school kids — star athletes and A-students — involved and addicted to drugs. Someone looking for painkillers, because they are hooked after their prescription runs out, finds out they are very expensive or unavailable on the street. But they have no trouble getting heroin.”

Wickersham said drug addicts often steal drugs or valuables from family or friends to pay for their addiction.

“It’s a bad cycle,” he said. “With these drug kits, we have a chance of not only saving a life but — with proper counseling and support programs — turning some lives around.”

Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team officers also report heroin is more easily accessible and cheaper than prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin.

A bindle, or single dose, of heroin can be bought from drug dealers for about $10. OxyContin reportedly goes for $20 to $30 a pill, according to undercover drug buys by NET officers.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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