By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — In his 32 years of recovery from cocaine, marijuana and alcohol abuse, Rep. Joseph Bellino, R-Monroe, has seen coworkers, friends and constituents fall victim to his former vice.
Recently, he’s seen more preventable deaths than before, as the lure of opioids in his community has intensified.
“I being a man who lost a cousin a few years ago to a heroin overdose — it started with pills after a surgery. I have a small store in Monroe. I lost a bottle boy,” Bellino, who owns an alcohol shop, said. “He took opioids, he couldn’t get them anymore, he tried heroin and bam, he’s dead.
“It’s touched my city of Monroe big time. We’ve lost a couple of hundred of kids in the past 10 years.”
Opioids, which include prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Fentanyl, have led to addictions and death across Michigan, as part of a wave that has swept through the United States.
The pills, when taken unnecessarily or excessively, function as gateway drugs to heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Bellino is fighingt back. By sponsoring two bills in the House, he and Rep. Beth Griffin, R-Mattawan, aim to inform Michiganders — from school children to older adults — about the seriousness of opioids and overused painkillers.
The bills would establish a statewide curriculum that schools could adopt to teach children about opioid usage. It would also mandate that prescribers inform minors and parents about the adverse effects that painkillers can have.
“Districts that do wish to add this information then will have curriculum ready for them to call to use,” Griffin said. “Sometimes that is a struggle — they might see this as a problem, but they don’t have any material to pull from. These two bills would create that curriculum for them.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Michigan had 1,980 opioid-related deaths in 2015, the seventh largest total in the country. Nationally, fatalities quadrupled between 1999 and 2015.
Because of the abundance of opioids, Griffin said that many schools already have general health education courses in place that touch on the topic of prescription drugs. However, there are relatively few state resources to turn to for help when developing lessons based on painkillers, she said.
Within the state, opioids have become as big a business as they have a risk. Last year, . Oscar Linares, a physician, was convicted in Monroe for unnecessarily dealing 250 prescription painkillers a day for more than three years.
The wide availability of the drug within his district inspired Bellino to take action.
“I would love to see the docs come out and say, ‘Part of the problem is our fault.’ I would love to see Purdue Pharmaceuticals say, ‘Part of the problem is our fault,’” Bellino said, referring to the company that invented and sells OxyContin. “But we’re not going to have that, so starting at a young age, and maybe tweak the classes that kids get about not drinking, not smoking marijuana, not doing heroin.”
Griffin is a teacher, and she said a uniform, certified education program could make the difference in some communities.
“It’s an addition of curriculum material written by people who are experts on opioid abuse,” Griffin said. “I think it’s going to be well received. If they’re like my area, they already see the problem.”
Griffin said that while the bills wouldn’t mandate schools to adopt the opioid abuse curriculum, it would give them the option. More importantly, schools that were vulnerable or struggling would be provided with a ready-made plan for explaining a relatively new topic.
“Opioid abuse today is an issue. Five, 10 years ago, it wasn’t,” Griffin said. “I think to be responsive to new problems is a good thing. I do not think that opioid prescription, painkiller abuse is covered right now in any official health education curriculum.”
Maureen Smith, substance abuse prevention specialist for the Michigan Prevention Network, said that what she had seen in classrooms had been satisfying to date, but that more messaging on the topic would be beneficial.
“More people are becoming aware of the problem. It’s important to make sure that all aspects are addressed,” Smith said.
Bellino said painkillers also do plenty to alleviate the agony of patients after surgeries and medical procedures, and that he didn’t wish to scare off doctors from prescribing medications in the right situations. Instead, he hopes that increased education will discourage unwarranted use and street sales.
“If they put too much paperwork on the hospitals and doctors, and you have a kidney stone — well, Motrin’s not going to help a kidney stone,” Bellino said.
As suggested by the American Academy of Pain Medicine, ingesting opioids should be done only by the patient for whom the pills were prescribed at the recommended dosage. Patients should disclose all other medications to their physician and never consume alcohol and opioids together.