Heroin and opioid prescription drug abuse has been a growing problem over the past couple years throughout the country, and in Metro Detroit in particular. U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan is tackling the issue head on with a smart approach that targets drug traffickers rather than users, and emphasizes prevention.

McQuade and other officials announced in late August a regional strategic initiative under the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program that will focus on another critical element of the drug problem: the movement of heroin and prescription pills from Michigan to Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Addiction to opioid drugs — both prescription pills and illegal heroin — transcends class, race, gender and age, and the numbers of increased deaths over the past several years are astounding. Snuffing out the drug at its source is the only way to address addiction growing at such an exponential rate.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 60 people have died of overdoses from heroin and fentanyl, a narcotic pain reliever, in just Wayne and Washtenaw counties. In Oakland County, the number of deaths from heroin overdose doubled annually from 2012 to 2014 — and this year is on pace with those numbers.

From 2010 to 2013, heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. tripled.

Easy access to these drugs is one issue, along with over-prescribing of narcotic pain killers.

McQuade said Michigan’s higher-than-average number of low-income residents susceptible to drug traffickers make the state a unique heroin powerhouse, but she will now be targeting drug traffickers whose distribution results in the death or overdoses of the drug purchasers.

The announcement came the same day federal, state, and local law enforcement raided a number of locations along Woodward Avenue as part of a large-scale heroin investigation, netting dozens of arrests, firearms and significant amounts of heroin.

The over-prescribing of pain killers such as oxycontin and hydrocodone is another culprit in the increase of overdose deaths, and McQuade should focus on working with doctors to limit prescriptions.

Patients who use legal painkillers to recover from surgery or another ailment can easily become addicts, moving onto widely available heroin once pain pills don’t give them a high, or become harder to acquire.

The number of unintentional overdose deaths in the U.S. from prescription pain relievers has more than quadrupled since 1999, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In Michigan, the rate of unintentional overdose deaths from 1999 to 2012 was about the same as the national rate, and unintentional poisoning deaths involving opioids increased more rapidly than deaths from any other drug, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Several police agencies in Michigan have equipped officers with naloxone, the nasal spray form of which can save the life of someone in the midst of an opioid overdose. It’s a smart and compassionate move on their part, but it’s no solution to the problem.

The state’s drug pipeline and proliferation of heroin use must end, and the hope is McQuade’s initiative will have a positive impact on Detroit and nearby states that also suffer from abuse of the drug.

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