When Clinton County Sheriff Larry Jerue began his career in law enforcement in the late 1970’s heroin had purity between 1.5 to 5 percent. Now it hovers around 35.
“Back then heroin was an inner-city drug. Now it knows no socio background. It is hitting the suburbs and the small communities like a tidal wave,” said Jerue.
From 2000 to 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, with the greatest increase seen in the Midwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many opioid addicts often turn to heroin after realizing it is a cheaper, stronger, and a more prevalent alternative to prescription drugs.
“’I can get it on any street corner I want, any high school I want.’ Anybody that’s selling oxycontin is selling heroin. Anyone that’s using can get it anywhere they want,” said Jerue.
Three out of four new heroin users report having abused prescription drugs prior to using heroin, according to the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/heroin.html)
The Clinton County Sheriff’s Office holds several drug seminars a year to educate parents on the warning signs of if their child is abusing opioids, the effects of the drugs, and most importantly, to check their medicine cabinets.
“The kids that are experimenting in drugs and want to try and chase that first high and did the oxy or did the whatever are now trying heroin for the first time and then when it grabs a hold of you, you will steal from your mom, your dad, you just don’t care anymore,” said Jerue.
Clinton County has not been immune to this rising epidemic, with 17 heroin overdoses and two deaths last year, one in DeWitt and one in Bath Township, according to Jerue.
“Our township is a little more rural than when you get a more concentrated area. We’ve probably had in the last year four or five different instances of people finding needles and stuff laying around and calling us. It’s far too common,” said Officer Thomas Bailey of the Bath Police Department.
The Bath Police Department works closely with the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office to combat heroin abuse by cutting off the source.
“We had someone OD a few months back on heroin and ended up dying and we got search warrants for their laptops and phones,” said Bailey.
The sheriff’s office was able to download the information off the devices and find the dealer who sold the heroin.
In a similar case, a Lansing man was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years in prison for the delivery of a controlled substance causing death in the September 2013 death of a DeWitt man.
“I feel like that’s the better route to take as far as law enforcement goes. Going after people dealing it is a lot more effective than going after the guy using it. If you can take the guy off the streets who’s dealing it then you’re getting 25 to 30 other people who are doing it now they’re not getting it from him or her,” said Bailey. “It’s a small step every time you get one but at least it slowly breaks away at people dealing it and making it and cutting it.”
In the two years as an officer for the Bath Police Department, Bailey said he has seen an increase in overdoses, but not an increase in overall use.
“They keep cutting it [heroin] with fentanyl and other products like that. So we’ve been getting a lot more overdoses and a lot more deaths because of how they’re cutting heroin lately.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is often mixed with heroin to increase its euphoric effects.
From 2014 to 2015 the state of Michigan saw a 13.3 percent increase in drug and opioid overdose deaths, climbing from 1,762 to 1,980, according to the CDC.
Kory Richey, 31, has been at the forefront of this fight for the past five years, including the last three as a full-time paramedic and training manager for Mercy Ambulance.
“When I began this career, overdoses of any type were once, maybe twice a year. This year specifically, I am personally responding to at least one every six shifts,” said Richey in an email interview.
Mercy Ambulance provides municipal 911 services for a number of cities and townships in Barry and Clinton County as well as private EMS for the tri-county area of Ingham, Clinton, and Eaton counties.
Richey often sees patients at their most fragile state and in fear of being arrested.
“I have never had a patient come right out and admit what they did to me. This includes the patients who look at me holding the spoon they just cooked their heroin up in and the needle they injected with, as well as patients I have responded to that still have the needle in their arm or leg and still have a belt or something similar wrapped around them,” wrote Richey.
Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton, Eaton, Ingham Counties offers a number of services to aid residents in their battle against addiction.
Rachel Boots, a substance abuse therapist at Community Mental Health’s Clinton County Counseling Center in St. Johns, sees around 35 out-patient cases a month, with close to 50 percent being for opioid addiction.
Boots works carefully with each patient to develop a plan to stay clean and regain a sense of normalcy.
“The therapeutic relationship plays a really strong role so you have to sort of create a bond with them to where they can work with you and feel you’re support and also someone they’re accountable to,” said Boots. “Developing relapse prevention plans, ways to deal with cravings, sort of an educational piece on relearning typical recreation and pleasure.”
The majority of the opioid patients Boots works with are under the age of 30. Chart: Age of heroin users chart.
One of the reasons for this, according to Boots, is young people believe it’s something they can do casually or only on the weekends.
“There’s a trend it does seem to me people are starting younger and younger. No matter what you tell them they don’t seem to have a concept of once you get into the opioids you’re so trapped, particularly after you catch the physical dependence of it,” said Boots.
On July 3, 2015, after years of struggling with addiction, Brianna Franklin passed away at the age of 21 from a heroin overdose.
“My daughter was gorgeous and she was smart. She graduated with presidential honors from her class. She wasn’t dumb, she just had that addictive trait that a lot of people who haven’t been affected or had issues of addiction in their families,” said Shannon Stebbins, Brianna’s mother.
At the age of 16 and 19, Brianna entered an inpatient rehab facility for brief stints of time and received outpatient services until she lost her insurance.
“She was about two weeks away from a free bed in a rehab center. She had been on the waiting list for a couple of months and I sure wish that she would have made it because you never know which time might have been the time where she finally got it together,” said Stebbins.
Stebbins believes the biggest misconception people have about not labeling addiction as a disease boils down to one thing: Choice.
“The first time my daughter picked up a drug it was her choice. To get addicted to it was not her choice.”