Detective Lieutenant Lisa Gee-Cram of the Michigan State Police described the growth of the deaths from opioid epidemic in Michigan, in the Greater Lansing and Jackson areas at a forum sponsored by the Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research on May 15 at the Michigan State Capitol.
Photo by BigDreamPhotoWorks for IPPSR
By Howard T. Spence
LANSING, MI -- Our entire nation is now in what appears to be an unprecedented and growing problem of drug overdoses and deaths relating to the use of heroin and other opioid drugs. More people died in the United States in recent years from heroin and opioid drug overdoses than died in the Vietnam and Gulf States wars combined. In 2014, overdoses involving opioid drugs killed more than 28,000 people.
Linda Vail is Ingham County’s Health Officer. According to Ms. Vail, nearly half a million people died in the United States from drug overdoses from 2000 – 2014. At the present time, nearly 78 Americans die every day from an opioid drug overdose.
In some Midwest areas in states like Ohio, medical examiners are finding that almost one person every day dies from an overdose of an opiate drug. Numbers are starting to climb in Michigan also. At a public policy forum on March 15 sponsored by the Michigan State University’s Institute of Public Policy Studies and Research (IPPSR), Michigan State police detective Lieutenant Lisa Gee-Cram pointed out that now significantly more people are dying in Jackson County, Michigan from drug overdoses than are dying from automobile crashes. At the forum on the heroin and opioid epidemic, Mike Hirst, a successful businessman in the Jackson area spoke about his family’s experience to discover that his son, Andy, had become addicted to opioid drugs by first stealing and using prescription medications to get high, and ultimately died from an opiate overdose after becoming addicted to heroin.
The death rates from opioid abuse overdoses here and all across our country appears to be escalating in part because more and more of the drugs which are being taken by addicts in our area are being laced or enhanced with very powerful additional opiate additives to enhance the “highs” that users experience.
One of these added opiates is Fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but sometimes manufactured to be 50 to 100 times more potent. Fentanyl – which can be manufactured illegally at very inexpensive costs and sold for great profits in the black market – is much more powerful than even the heroin which has historically been available in our communities on the streets. Because street drugs are sold illegally, they are not regulated for quality or strength. Some opiate addicts are overdosing now because the opiate drug mixtures they end up taking are much stronger than they expected or their bodies can handle. Sometimes only a few drops of these additive opiate drugs are powerful enough to tranquilize or kill an elephant.
Opioid drugs include not only heroin, but also “legal” drugs that are often prescribed by doctors for pain relief including hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), morphine, codeine and related drugs. Some drugs which are not opioids (like marijuana for instance) are now being laced with opioids like fentanyl or another related drug, and unsuspecting marijuana users are overdosing and dying from the opioids added to their marijuana.
According to Ms. Vail, some people get addicted to opioid drugs by using prescription drugs that they get from their doctors for legitimate medical purposes such as surgery aftercare. But more and more people – especially younger people – are “stealing” leftover or unused prescription drugs that they find in the medicine cabinets of other family members such as parents or grandparents.
“Many people believe these drugs are not dangerous because they can be prescribed by a doctor, but abuse often leads to dependence and opioid addiction,” said Ms. Vail. “Almost 1 in 20 adolescents and adults have used prescription pain medication when it was not prescribed for them personally to get high or for the euphoric ‘feeling’ it caused in them. Within Ingham county, Michigan recently, a survey showed that nearly 1 in every 12 eleventh graders reported using prescription drugs of some sort which had not been personally prescribed for them ‘in the past 30 days.’”
Michigan is a “high prescribing” state. In a recent year, doctors and health care providers in this state issued more individual opioid drug prescriptions than there are people in our state. According to Ms. Vail, one of the best things that we can do to try to reduce opioid drug abuse is to clear expired, unwanted and unused medications from our household medicine cabinets or to make sure that they are secured so they cannot be easily stolen or taken by others.
“While heroin and opioid use was once considered a “poor person” or “urban/inner city” problem, the average heroin user today is now more likely to be a young, white, suburbanite,” said Ms. Vail. “The abuse of heroin and other opioid drugs is at tragic and epidemic proportions today because not only are users becoming addicted in record numbers, but as the dosages of opioid drugs are becoming more powerful, more and more of those users are meeting untimely deaths due to overdosing on those drugs. We now find ourselves in a serious and deadly epidemic of overdose deaths due to use of heroin and opioid drugs.”
In 2016 in Ingham County alone, according to the Ingham County Medical Examiner, 87 persons who were Ingham County residents died from drug related deaths. Seventy-seven of those deaths were from opioid overdoses. Of the 77 dying from opioid overdoses, 54 were males, and 23 were females. Nineteen of those were between the ages of 25 and 34, 23 were between the ages of 35 and 44, and 17 were between the ages of 45 and 54.
Of the 77 who died from heroin and opioid overdoses, 72 were white, 4 were black, and 1 was racially classified as “other.” Two of the people who died from overdoses were identified as “Hispanic or Latino.” The average age for those dying in Ingham County during 2016 from heroin or opioid overdoses was about 41 years.
While this increase in heroin and opioid use and overdoses is at tragic and epidemic levels in Ingham county, similar trends and evidence of the heroin and opioid epidemic are being noticed in the adjacent counties including Eaton, Jackson, and Clinton counties.
The Government and Law Enforcement Response to the Heroin and Opioid Epidemic
There have been calls at both the local state government level in Michigan and the national federal government level for quick and decisive action to educate people to the dangers of opioid drug abuse and the seriousness of the overdose problem. While there has been considerable discussion about the problem of the heroin and opioid epidemic recently, to date the legislative response and lack of necessary funding to address this escalating drug abuse and opioid overdose problem has not resulted in significant progress to reduce loss of life and increased abuse and addiction resulting from this epidemic.
Many people who are presently receiving treatment for opioid drug addiction and overdoses are getting that treatment because there is some possibility of payment for treatment costs resulting from the Medicaid expansion here in Michigan. That Medicaid expansion has made some additional treatment coverage funding available under the provisions in the federal Affordable Care Act (“Obama Care”).
Treatment and management of addiction and drug overdoses can be an expensive process. Not only is there a physical addiction aspect to the opioid drugs involved, there also may be a need for addiction recovery therapy and continual counseling and monitoring to address the mental health aspect of addiction to these drugs. In Michigan, many heroin and opioid addicts can get treatment through referrals from organizations such as our local Community Mental Health Authority which primarily serves residents of Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham counties (CMH-CEI).
“You don’t have to actually be a resident of Clinton, Eaton, or Ingham counties to get help with addiction and opioid drug abuse here in the Greater Lansing area,” said Ms. Ericanne Spence, director of the CMH-CEI Substance Abuse Services Administration and Corrections Mental Health component in the tri-county region communities.
“If you or a loved one has an addiction problem, you can call or come to CMH-CEI – even on a walk-in basis – and we will try to get you connected to services that can help with those addiction, overdose, or even related potential suicide problems,” said Ms. Spence. “If you come across someone who is apparently suffering from an overdose or opioid related severe health crisis incident, call 9-1-1 immediately or get them to a hospital emergency room quickly!”
From 2008 to 2011 there were an average of 1.1 million emergency room department visits in our country per year for drug poisoning or overdoses, according to Ms. Vail.
Emergency Responders and Law Enforcement Officers saving lives of Overdose Victims
People who have overdosed with opioid drugs or heroin need to get help very quickly. Even a few minutes can be crucial to saving lives of people who have overdosed. There are some medications or antidotes which, if administered quickly, can often save the life of someone who has gone into an overdose status. The likelihood of death by overdose from heroin and opioids is great when taken in excessive or overdose amounts. One of the most commonly used antidote drugs is “Narcan®” or Naloxone. More and more law enforcement departments and first responders in the Greater Lansing area have equipped their staff with this antidote drug to administer to people who they encounter who have symptoms of opioid overdose. Almost all EMS services in the Greater Lansing area have supplies of opioid overdose antidotes including Narcan.
The Eaton County sheriff’s department was one of the first law enforcement units to equip all their deputies with Narcan to administer to suspected opioid overdose victims. Now most of the major law enforcement and first responder units in the Greater Lansing area, including the City of Lansing Police Department and the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department, have this Narcan antidote in their response vehicles and patrol cars.
“The city of Lansing EMS staff administered Narcan to 255 people in 2016,” said Ms. Vail. “Many lives of overdose victims were saved as the result of administering this antidote drug.”
Strangely enough, in some other areas of our country, including the neighboring state of Ohio, some law enforcement officials are taking the position that their deputies are not EMS people and will “not be allowed to carry or use Narcan or related antidote drugs.”
Narcan is a “safe” drug to administer – even if the person receiving the Narcan has not actually experienced an opioid overdose. Sometimes first responders cannot tell conclusively if some symptoms are actually coming from drug overdoses. They may administer Narcan as a precautionary measure until medical staff can better evaluate the condition of someone suspected of being overdosed on heroin or opioids. While Narcan is in many instances effective in reviving overdosed heroin and opioid drug users, it does not injure people if they have not overdosed on opioids as suspected.
The frustration of an Ohio sheriff who took the position that his deputies would not be equipped with Narcan is somewhat understandable given that the death rate due to heroin and opioid overdose is extremely high in the state of Ohio. That death rate from overdose is becoming ever greater in the current epidemic – especially since drugs used by addicts of all sorts in Ohio are now being “enhanced” or “laced” dangerously by some drug dealers and users with the addition of other opioid drugs designed to enhance the “high” realized by the drug users. Some of these added drugs include extremely lethal drugs now becoming much more common include Fentanyl and its derivative drugs. Some of those additives used are so strong that they are actually used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants.
There is little wonder that drugs with that type of power can quickly lead to overdose deaths that sometimes even antidotes such as Narcan cannot prevent. That problem is especially troubling because it now appears that some of the drugs being illegally sold and used in Ohio that are so powerfully addictive and devastating which are even being added to much less potent and detrimental drugs such as marijuana are beginning to appear here in the Greater Lansing area. People taking drugs of any sort – but especially heroin and opioids – are more and more placing their own lives into jeopardy as they seek to feed their addictive cravings in their search for that next, better “high.”
Readers and community service organizations wanting to get more information about the heroin and opioid epidemic at this time can contact either the Ingham Health Department or your local county health department for statistics specific to their county. Local statistics can also be obtained from CMH-CEI by contacting Ms. Ericanne Spence, Director of Substance Abuse Services & Corrections Mental Health.
The writer of this article, Howard T. Spence, is solely responsible for the content of the article and the information therein. Howard T. Spence is Eaton County Commissioner from Delta Township. The views and information provided in this article are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or positions of Eaton County government, CMH – CEI, or any other government agency, nor the official position of the publisher of The New Citizens Press newspaper.
Editor’s Note: This article is Part I of three articles addressing the serious heroin and opioid addiction and overdose problem, which is impacting America. The series will continue in The New Citizens Press with an article regarding balancing the roles of law enforcement and addiction treatment and therapy in addressing the heroin and opioid epidemic and a personal story of a family deeply impacted by this epidemic.
Printed in the August 6, 2017 - August 19, 2017 edition