Local officials discuss opioid epidemic with public

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published November 6, 2017

 Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse Director Randy O’Brien provides an overview of the Macomb County opioid epidemic Oct. 30 at the Macomb Intermediate School District in Clinton Township.

Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse Director Randy O’Brien provides an overview of the Macomb County opioid epidemic Oct. 30 at the Macomb Intermediate School District in Clinton Township.

Photo by Sarah Purlee

MACOMB COUNTY — How does a city, state or nation combat an increasing epidemic that is becoming as commonplace as cancer?

The opioid epidemic is not just a local issue, but more so a national referendum on the debilitating effects of addiction that have led to pain and death for families and loved ones.

On Oct. 30, the Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse, or MCOSA, hosted a two-hour forum to help instruct the public on facts and figures related to the ongoing crisis. The panel included influential voices in the county’s community mental health sector.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel spoke first, talking about his stepbrother who succumbed to his substance abuse issues related to drugs and alcohol.

“I found myself in a situation where I had no answers,” Hackel said.

He said county jails have transformed, becoming safe havens for addicts who are better off receiving care than being in the real world getting their fix. He added that the county plans to more stringently evaluate the distribution and impact of opioids in local communities.

MCOSA Director Randy O’Brien then listed the chilling numbers, which have consistently increased the past few years. He said the epidemic is costing the nation $78.5 billion annually, with approximately 2 million addicts. About 64,000 drug overdose deaths occurred last year nationally — half of which were a result of opioids.

Michigan has seen a 16-times increase, and Macomb County is no exception: The number of total county drug-related deaths rose from 223 in 2011 to 358 in 2016. Totals have risen each year since 2013.

Most opioid deaths occur in those ages 20-29 and 35-54. O’Brien said the prevalence is likely a result of individuals getting hooked on meds after being ill or undergoing injury treatments.

About 14 1/2 percent of heroin hospitalizations statewide occur in Macomb County, with the most fatal deaths occurring in the county between 2010 and 2012. Heroin-related deaths increased from 2005 to 2013, with more overdoses occurring in the county’s southern end.

A big issue that’s contributing to the crisis is the prevalence of medication called fentanyl. Identified to be 50 or 100 times stronger than morphine — and in some cases even stronger — the drug resulted in one county death in 2013. In 2016, fentanyl contributed to 144 deaths.

“It’s something that we have to figure out what’s changing,” O’Brien said.

Hope, and help
MCOSA Assistant Director Helen Klingert said it wasn’t long ago that science and research could explain addiction. Now, evidence-based research and community support have become vital in battling a crisis that is ravaging lives.

The county has offered its expertise in the form of treatment programs, including outpatient, case management, residential, withdrawal management and other outreach services.

“Someone feels (as) sick as they can be, like the flu lasts forever,” Klingert said regarding withdrawal symptoms.

With its Hope Not Handcuffs program Klingert noted that Macomb County was the first county in the United States to launch such a program. Approximately 600 people and 200 volunteers are part of the program, which helps addicts get help and use law enforcement as relief.

“For so long it seemed like we were in silos,” she said.

Dawn Radzioch, prevention coordinator for MCOSA, said “take back” events have helped the county collect almost 15,000 pounds of old or unused medication since 2011.

“We don’t want those meds sitting in a cupboard or flushed down the toilet,” Radzioch said.

In Macomb County, 12 local police departments, the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office and the Macomb County Health Department are available as permanent disposal sites.

Representatives from CARE of Southeastern Michigan, Sacred Heart Rehabilitation and the Clinton Counseling Center also spoke about how they’re positively impacting communities.

Justin Kroll, a former addict from Port Huron who is about seven years sober, said he’s “super grateful to have a chance to keep breathing.”

He recalled spending $2,500 on various substances throughout a five-day binge. There was another 11-day span of which he has no recollection — a hazy, drug-induced dream.

An only child of parents who raised him in a loving environment, he said that after years of being in and out of treatment, he reached a fork in the road.

“I was given a gift, and the gift was willingness,” Kroll said.

He made small changes after chronically relapsing, such as no longer sharing his perceived progress with family and friends because, as he put it, “I was dying inside.”

He now sponsors addicts and helps them by way of his own experiences. He is married to a woman who is eight years sober herself, he owns a home, and he is on the verge of attaining a college degree.

“The bottom line is, there is hope,” he said.

Connecting communities
State Rep. Henry Yanez, D-Sterling Heights, was present at the forum to learn more about the various programs paid for by taxpayer dollars.

“My biggest concern is that the average person sitting at home who finds out their loved one has an addiction doesn’t even know anything about these programs,” Yanez said. “Just navigating the system — not even navigating the system, but just that first outreach. Where do you go and what do you do and who do you talk to? I think it’s still a problem we have in this society.”

He said there is no disconnect between citizens in rural or suburban Michigan communities and legislators who make the rules in Lansing. Yanez, who serves on the Department of Health and Human Services Subcommittee, said opioid addiction is the biggest threat today. However, he said addictive substances — such as alcohol, heroin and benzodiazepines like Xanax — are a problem in and of itself.

“What came first: the mental health issue or the addiction?” he said. “Quite often addiction can lead to a mental health issue; quite often people are addicted because they have a mental health issue. And then finding out that mental health issue early and treating that before it turns into addiction.”

State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, said he has dealt with personal friends who have succumbed to addiction.

He talked about traveling to the Upper Peninsula and meeting prosecutors and health professionals, realizing that rural areas are affected just as much as suburbia. Addiction affects everyone, he said, no matter the size of a town, the demographics or the age group.

“It’s a horrendous and horrifying crisis that we are facing in this country and this state, and I know my colleagues talk about it as well. … As I talk to some of my colleagues, I do suspect this is certainly not a partisan issue,” Bieda said. “We appreciate the depth of the seriousness of this issue.”

He believes it “transcends politics” and is based upon humanity. With drugs like fentanyl becoming more commonplace, it’s up to statewide politicians to curb the dangers before they escalate even more out of control.

“We can address this, but we have to have the political will and the political moxie, so to speak,” Bieda said. “There’s going to be some tough decisions that we’re going to have to make.

“It’s going to cost some money; it’s going to change some behaviors. But if we don’t do it, those numbers … are only going to get worse, and that would be a horrific shame.”

For more information on MCOSA or addiction, call (586) 469-5278 or visit www.mcosa.net.