Heroin: a national epidemic hits close to home

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By Courtney Kendler
Holt Journal Staff Reporter

With much of the country falling victim to the steady rise in heroin use, many ordinary communities across the nation are struggling when it comes to helping those with substance abuse problems. Holt is no different.

“A big problem in Holt right now is the same problem everywhere. It’s heroin. It’s huge,” said Delhi Township Supervisor C.J. Davis. “Nobody wants to talk about it. They’re ashamed to be involved in it, but it’s bigger than most people know.”

According to information from the Ingham County Health Department, 19 county residents died of heroin overdoses between January and June of 2015.

Michigan has experienced a significant increase in heroin related deaths recently.

Michigan has experienced a significant increase in heroin related deaths in the last few years. Chart by Courtney Kendler.

Ingham County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Harless expects this number to double before the year is over. “I’ll bet we will be in the 40s or near 45 by the end of the year,” he said.

While there are many reasons someone might turn to heroin, a majority of experts agree that the over-prescribing of prescription painkillers is a common gateway for many addicts.

According to addiction psychiatrist Dr. Norman Miller, “studies show clearly for years that over 50 percent of the people who become addicted to heroin started with prescription opioid medications.”

“People get on painkillers and then are taken off of them, and the only place they have to turn is heroin,” said Davis.

University of Michigan Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Amy Bohnert, who specializes in prescription drug overdoses, agrees that heroin addiction frequently sprouts from the use of prescription painkillers.

“Individuals are using prescription opioids and develop a problematic dependence on the medications and then either switch to heroin because it is cheaper or because they lose access to prescription opioids,” said Bohnert.

While movies may stereotype the typical drug abuser as someone who lurks in the shadows and is constantly strung out, Harless doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a conventional drug abuser anymore.

“The heroin users are the people next door. They’re the people who are sitting next to you in church and the people that you go to school with,” said Harless. “I think that most of us know somebody that is a heroin user … It’s people that we all work with, play with.

“It is such a universal problem.”

Adam Howe, a 25-year-old former heroin addict and current manager at RISE Transitional Housing, a Lansing-based recovery program for addicts, agrees that the face of heroin addiction is changing.

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” said Howe. “We’ve had people come through RISE that have been addicted to prescription medication or heroin that were doctors. We’ve had a dentist and lawyers that came through here. I mean they are from all walks of life. It seems like everyone’s getting into it.”

One way local officials are trying to prevent further drug overdoses is by outfitting Ingham County Sheriff’s cars with Narcan, a drug that helps to reverse the effects of an overdose.

Ingham County Sheriff's cars will now be outfitted with Narcan to try and counteract the effects of an overdose.

Ingham County Sheriff’s cars are now being outfitted with Narcan to try and counteract the effects of a drug overdose. Photo by Courtney Kendler.

“We have only started using the Narcan here about six weeks ago and just last week we saved the life of a kid in Mason,” said Harless. “Does it pay off? Yes, it does, and it already has.”

“It’s not going to stop the problem, but it may save some lives if the police get to them in time,” said Miller. “But, a lot of people are still going to die, unfortunately.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is in full support of police, fire and EMT personnel being equipped with Narcan. “SAMHSA’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit equips communities and local governments with materials to develop policies and practices to help prevent opioid-related overdoses and deaths,” said representative Bradford Stone.

One such initiative aimed at preventing drug overdoses is the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force, which was formed by Governor Rick Snyder in June 2015. The task force is responsible for reporting on the growing drug problem and making recommendations for changes to regulations and practices in the future.

“The impact of prescription drug and opioid abuse is being felt in every community across Michigan. It crosses all demographic, geographic and political lines,” said Snyder in a statement earlier this year.

While initiatives like this give hope to many, Davis is not quite convinced.

“Until we as a society, and the police, can get together and figure out a way where essentially people can turn in their relatives without their relatives having repercussions of that, we’re doomed and it will continue,” said Davis.

Bohnert agrees, saying, “if people are afraid of being arrested if they call 911 because they see an overdose, they will be less likely to call for help.”

If you or someone you know is having problems with addiction, please contact RISE Transitional Housing at (517) 703-3389.

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