Editorial: Opioid abuse legislation a right start

The Detroit News

Addiction to opioid drugs has hit critical levels throughout the nation, prompting action from members of Congress, the White House and our own Legislature. The national effort to combat addiction to opioid painkillers, which often leads to dependence on common street heroin, can’t come soon enough. Michigan also must continue to address the epidemic.

Gov. Rick Snyder last fall established a task force on opioid abuse headed by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. The task force has issued 25 recommendations and seven contingent recommendations to help prevent, treat, regulate and change policies and enforcement related to abuse and overdose of the drugs.

The Legislature has wisely taken up some of those proposals.

Legislation passed recently by the House would allocate $2.5 million to overhaul the state’s prescription tracking database, the Michigan Automated Prescription System. Bill supporters, and the task force report, found that a big part of Michigan’s opioid problem is an unreliable tracking system for doctors prescribing the drugs.

Too often this crucial system isn’t used by doctors or, more often, is sorely out of date. Revamping this tool could help prevent addiction at the source.

The proliferation of doctor-prescribed medications has directly contributed to the upsurge in painkiller addiction and heroin use, which has increased 11-fold between 2000 and 2013.

Calley said 75 percent of heroin addicts who have been using since 2000 began with prescription drugs.

Michigan opioid-related overdose deaths have tripled since 1999. More than 1,700 people died in 2014, also the year with more drug overdoses nationwide than any previous year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And data from MAPS shows that more than 21 million prescriptions for controlled substances were written in 2014, four million more than in 2007.

Overdose deaths from drugs have become the leading cause of injury death in the U.S., surpassing motor vehicle fatalities in 2013, according to the CDC.

The House legislation would also expand parameters for who can access drugs to counteract an opioid overdose, also a critical piece.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Michigan have increasingly been using naloxone on overdose victims. It’s one of the surest ways to save lives.

Another measure the state should consider is to eliminate criminal penalties for those who voluntarily bring themselves to police stations, hospitals or centers for treatment — and haven’t committed any other crimes. Currently laws that punish drug offenders keep addicts from reporting their own serious condition.

An “Angel Program” like that is currently underway in Escanaba, one of the areas worst hit by the drug epidemic in Michigan. Police there have agreed to not arrest people who come in seeking treatment.

Congress is currently considering similar legislation and treatment recommendations at the federal level. The cost to fully address the opioid epidemic nationally could be at least $1.1 billion, and lawmakers are wrestling with how to appropriately use the Drug Enforcement Agency but still make medicine available to people who truly need it.

Michigan sits in the middle of Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania — all states equally struggling with the opioid epidemic. The state must begin to tackle some of the recommendations from the task force soon, and the House legislation is a good place to start.