Detroit area drug deaths rise; solution elusive

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
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It’s a costly and deadly crisis that, despite the best efforts of many in medicine and law enforcement, is getting worse.

Deaths from prescription and street drugs in Michigan and elsewhere are at epidemic levels.

Fatalities statewide are rising by double-digit percentages each year. Nationally, 52,404 people died of overdoses in 2015, the latest available data from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

While marking his Macomb County city’s many successes recently, one mayor spoke of “the growing number of ‘the living, walking dead’ in this community, addicted to and perishing from drugs.”

A medical examiner speaks of the rising death toll among victims who ingested drugs “several hundred times” the potency of heroin.

A sheriff laments how best efforts have not been enough to save longtime drug users as well as people who “graduated” from prescription pain medication to street drugs, which are often cheaper and more accessible.

Recovering addict: ‘One decision away from ruining life

Jeannie Richards has experienced the toll of opioid addiction both personally and professionally. Her son, Bryan, 26, died of a heroin overdose in 2012 after becoming addicted to Vicodin he was prescribed to treat an injury.

Richards turned her pain into action, founding the nonprofit support group Bryan’s HOPE (Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education) in Waterford Township. She figures she has talked with at least 5,000 people who are addicted or who lost loved ones to drugs.

“Four years ago, you didn’t hear the word ‘heroin’ in some of the communities — it might as well have been a four-letter curse word,” said Richards. “It was something not talked about. Now it is. The dialogue is underway everywhere.”

She and other Metro Detroit experts agree the problem needs to be attacked on multiple fronts.

“I look at it like a multi-legged stool, each of them important,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. “One thing is certain: You aren’t going to arrest your way out of this problem.

“To address this, it’s going to take education, prevention, legislation, diversion and enforcement.”

It’s not from a lack of effort by potential problem-solvers. Consider:

■The federal government in April announced grants of nearly half a billion dollars for prevention and treatment programs to confront the opioid epidemic. Michigan will get nearly $16.4 million.

■Michigan last month rolled out a new, more technically advanced version of its voluntary statewide prescription monitoring program. The CDC reports Michigan drug-related deaths have climbed from 1,553 in 2013 to 1,980 in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available from state and federal agencies.

■The death toll could be even greater, if not for intervention by police, who are increasingly using opioid antidotes to save overdose victims.

■The powers of police in some communities, such as Warren, are being broadened to crack down on drug houses outside their normal jurisdiction.

■At a seminar hosted Thursday in Pontiac by the Oakland County Bar Association, state and local experts will huddle over drug problems.

In Metro Detroit, overdose deaths are surging, according to data from medical examiners.

Drug-related fatalities are up more than 50 percent in Wayne County since 2014, from 543 to 848 last year. They rose in Oakland County from 241 in 2014 to 282 last year and in Macomb County from 244 in 2013 to 280 in 2015, the latest year for which data are available from that county.

About half of the Wayne County deaths — 430 — were attributed to fentanyl, followed by heroin (334) and cocaine (332). In some cases, more than one drug is involved.

Officials say users have learned they can obtain a dose of heroin, often laced with fentanyl, an artificial opioid, for about $10; a single painkiller pill, like OxyContin or Vicodin, could cost upwards of $80.

“It appears that in the city (Detroit), the drug of choice is heroin or a variety of street drugs, while in outlying suburbs there is more a tendency of prescription drug abuse — stealing grandma’s pills and using them or selling them at school,” said Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, Wayne County’s director of health, veterans and community wellness.

“Either way, people are dying from both — prescription and street drugs,” he said. “It’s about half and half.”

Ken Briggs, business development administrator for Waterford-based Meridian Health Services, which provides addiction treatment at several facilities in southeast Michigan, has seen the growing toll of opioid addiction.

“We treat about 7,000 clients every year,” he said. “Prescription drug abuse has been upticking for about the past seven years. At one point, it accounted for maybe 30 percent of the patients. Now it might be 50 percent or higher.”

Nearly 4 in 5 new heroin users started out misusing prescription opioids, according to a study issued in 2013 by the federal Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.

Richards said that’s what happened to her son.

“After a year his doctor said no more Vicodin, told him to enter treatment instead,” she said. “... He went ‘doctor shopping’ and even to emergency rooms attempting to get drugs, but they figured him out. He stole from bathroom medicine cabinets.

“Finally, he turned to heroin because it was cheaper and more easily accessible,” she said.

In 2015, Macomb County recorded 114 deaths related to heroin — either by itself or combined with other drugs —according to an annual medical examiner’s report. That was up 6.5 percent from 2014.

Warren Mayor James Fouts raised concerns about drug deaths in March during his State of the City speech. Fouts said fatal heroin-related overdoses in Warren spiked to 35 last year, up from seven in 2015 and three in 2014.

Fouts had police officers deputized by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration so they could go after known drug houses across Eight Mile in Detroit.

“Thanks to them, we were able to get grand jury indictments last year against the Polo drug gang, responsible for a major amount of drugs being sold to Warren residents and others,” he said.

Fouts also had all of the city’s police officers and firefighters issued antidote kits to help revive overdose victims.

“We have to stop treating all users as criminals,” he said. “You go around the city and you can see some of these addicts — they look like the walking dead. We need to get them to help themselves clean up and to lead productive lives.”

Oakland County Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic said drug combinations are a key contributor to the rising number of narcotic-related deaths.

“There is no question the numbers are increasing,” Dragovic said. When combined with such drugs as fentanyl, heroin’s potency grows by as much as 200 to 400 percent, he added.

Under a program begun by Bouchard, Oakland County deputies have used Narcan nasal spray to save 84 of 91 overdose victims since 2015.

“Part of the training (of deputies) is to anticipate some of these people being combative when they are revived,” he said. “Some of them are very upset we have disturbed their ‘high,’ not realizing they were taking their last breaths.”

In one rescue, deputies gave Narcan to a 28-year-old Springfield Township man found unconscious and struggling to breathe April 15. After being revived, the man admitted using heroin.

Bouchard supports creating a mandatory statewide automated prescription database.

State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, has proposed legislation that would require anyone who prescribes opioids to report the activity.

“I have been met with some opposition from some health professionals who think they should be exempt,” she said, “but my response is, ‘aren’t you concerned about people becoming addicted and dying from such medication?’ ”

Drug addiction affects everyone, Bouchard said.

“Anyone who says they don’t know of someone — a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker — who is having problems with drugs isn’t asking the right questions,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

(248) 338-0319

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