Heroin cases on the rise, police say

As county sees epidemic, Birmingham-Bloomfield area is seemingly unaffected

By: Tiffany Esshaki, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 23, 2014

OAKLAND COUNTY — With the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team’s heroin cases increasing by 300 percent since last year, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments are encouraging parents to become more aware of their children’s activities and to properly dispose of unused prescription drugs.

Many in the Birmingham-Bloomfield community might think that their neighborhoods are protected from the threat of heroin infiltration because of consistently low crime statistics, low instance of poverty and other risk factors. Opiate addiction — which can range from heroin to prescription pain medication — can take hold of residents in any area, however.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of people are starting with a transitional drug. The biggest transitional drug is illegally used prescription drugs,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. “When they run out of a prescription … and they can no longer get it out of the medicine cabinet, they go to the streets.”

While prescription pills may cost $40 each on the streets, a bindle, or one dose, of heroin may cost $10, Bouchard said.

What is heroin?
Heroin is an opioid, a psychoactive chemical, synthesized from morphine, which is a natural substance extracted from the seedpod of the Asian opium poppy seed plant. Heroin can appear in three forms — a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance, “black tar heroin,” and can be injected, snorted, smoked or ingested.

Effects from heroin include abscesses from intravenous use, poisoning from unknown additives or contaminants, collapsed veins, liver disease, infectious diseases such as hepatitis, and sudden death.

The quality and purity of heroin is significantly higher than it was 10-15 years ago, Bouchard explained. Heroin content was anywhere from 3-10 percent, with 10 percent being considered “good.” Now, due to the quality of heroin coming in from various places, especially Afghanistan, Bouchard said Oakland County NET is currently seeing a trend of 80-90 percent purity, possibly causing addiction or an overdose on the first use. 

“That’s why you’re seeing all the overdoses. … They take a hit of this super pure heroin and it overwhelms their system,” Bouchard said.

National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration issued a public advisory March 14 stating that since January, the number of deaths on the East Coast reportedly linked to heroin use contaminated with the synthetic opiate fentanyl — which carries a potency 50-100 times that of morphine — has increased.

How close is it?
Cmdr. Terry Kiernan, of Birmingham Police, said he hasn’t seen much evidence that heroin has a large presence in Birmingham, save for a handful of incidents, including the death of 37-year-old Tawnya Jarvis in early 2013. Southfield resident Richard Babbie was charged with delivery of heroin causing death after he allegedly helped administer a heroin shot to Jarvis in her Birmingham apartment.

Chief Daniel Roberts, of the Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Department, agreed that he hasn’t had an issue with the drug just yet, but he’s well aware of the national epidemic, and he and his officers are “keeping their finger on the pulse” of the situation in case heroin does make its presence known in the villages.

“We’re keeping up with the intelligence, whether it’s coming our way. But if I did get some indication that it’s clearly coming our way, we would make sure we’re training our officers for recognition signs and ways to mitigate it,” he said.

Lt. Timothy Abbo, of Bloomfield Township Police, also said that his department hasn’t seen a huge presence of the drug, except for some rare cases of overdose.

“It’s not (here) like it is in, say, Pontiac,” said Abbo.

Bouchard and Oakland County NET, however, might argue that the drug isn’t coming but, instead, is already here. Kiernan agreed that’s a possibility, but one that’s hard to verify until it’s too late.

“Heroin is not like marijuana or cocaine. When a user gets their hands on heroin, they use it right then and there,” he explained. “It’s not usual to find people carrying heroin. It’s not like they buy X-amount of heroin to get them through the week; they get it day to day.”

‘Get to them before they get to the drug’
Kiernan said the department is working to build strong relationships in the schools via liaison officers to warn students early about the dangers of the drug that seems to be lurking just around the corner.

“(The school liaison) tries to keep his ears to the ground, but the kids aren’t talking about it. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, but we’re not hearing about it,” said Kiernan. “But we’ve got to get it with the youth and get to them before they get to the drug. That’s always been society’s big push: you’ve got to educate the younger people that this stuff is bad.”

Law enforcement officials suggest the following for minimizing adolescent exposure to prescription drugs and heroin:

• Keep an updated inventory of prescription drugs in the house.

• Lock up prescription drugs.

• Be aware of your children’s friends and look for signs of changed behavior and mood swings.

• Dispose of unused or expired medications at one of Operation Medicine Cabinet’s 21 locations.

“(Heroin) is drifting down into the teens dramatically and into the high schools. On one weekend, we had 16 overdoses across the county. … Parents really have to tune in to what is going on in their kid’s life,” Bouchard said.

Carol Mastroianni would have to disagree, however. As the executive director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition, she said her group’s research and feedback from local law enforcement shows that heroin has yet to become a major issue in the area’s high schools.

“For our high school and middle schoolers, it is not an epidemic. When you get into the mid-20s or so and a little bit older, that’s where we’re seeing it,” said Mastroianni. “But this is where our prevention efforts can do a lot of great work.”

The coalition, which serves Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, Franklin, Bingham Farms and Beverly Hills, as well as portions of Orchard Lake, Southfield, West Bloomfield and Troy, works to prevent drinking and drug abuse with K-12 students. They host informational programs for parents and students, host substance-free events for teens and advocate for healthy schools in a number of ways.

Mastroianni said the BBCC gets its information from Washington, D.C., the Oakland County Sherriff’s office and other agencies to stay up on which threats are seemingly imminent.

“We knew back in 2012 that, in the future, heroin could become an issue, so we were able to start back then to educate and build awareness around the issue,” she said, noting that statistics show heroin isn’t widely used in the Birmingham-Bloomfield community and those students who do use it typically don’t shoot the drug.

That data doesn’t necessarily apply to the use of opiate prescription drugs or other medications are being abused by young people.

The group’s campaign to thwart heroin is similar to their efforts to prevent K2 use — or synthetic marijuana — just a couple of years ago when the then-legal drug posed a threat to local teens. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the substance is; it all comes down to education and communication.

“Pick a code word or term, and tell your child if they’re uncomfortable in a situation to text or call and say that word, and you’ll come pick them up, no questions asked. Also, recognize the positives in your kids,” she said. It isn’t always about punishment or badgering them with questions. It’s basic parenting and basic communication.”

Is it too late?
Robert Gerds, administrator at the Oakland County Medical Examiners’ Office, explained that it is often difficult to determine a cause of death due to heroin use, and 6-monoacetylmorphine, or 6-MAM, which is a metabolite unique to heroin but has a short half-life, is necessary to verify heroin use is present.

“If we don’t find 6-MAM, we don’t say it’s heroin,” Gerds said. “Yes, there are heroin deaths, but the overwhelming majority (of drug-related deaths) is from prescription drug abuse.”

Toxicology reports take a month, minimum.

“If it’s an acute overdose, then we’ll find (6-MAM). Just because there’s syringes at the scene, heroin isn’t the only drug that’s injected. So that’s why it’s difficult,” Gerds said.

The Examiner’s Office classifies death in five manners: homicide, suicide, accident, natural and undetermined. Most drug deaths are classified as drug abuse, undetermined.

“(Heroin is) kind of like the designer drug of the week,” Gerds said. “All this drug abuse, all of it cumulatively, is killing the country.”

Now that the drug has become so rampant, legislators are considering ways to save the lives of addicts in the event of an overdose by potentially making naloxone — an antidote for heroin overdoses — more widely available to first responders without EMS training. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggested that all employees of police and fire departments be equipped with the lifesaving drug in the event emergency medical personnel aren’t available to administer the injection.

According to a statement from Holder’s office, when administered quickly, “naloxone immediately restores breathing to a victim in the throes of a heroin or opioid overdose.” So far, 17 states have amended laws to increase access to the drug, resulting in more than 10,000 overdose reversals since 2001.

Those administering the drug with good intentions in those states are protected from criminal prosecution by Good Samaritan laws if something were to go wrong.

Other lawmakers oppose making naloxone more accessible, saying it could give addicts a license to use heroin without fear of consequence.

Roberts said that at this time, arming his officers with naloxone isn’t necessary, since heroin overdoses haven’t become a large problem in his jurisdiction. He also said the firefighters who serve the villages of Franklin and Bingham Farms are all EMS trained and, considering their excellent response times, could easily administer the drug if needed in time.

“I’m not closed minded to the idea of potentially training our police officers, as well; it just depends on (the level of) the threat,” said Roberts.