Heroin is here

By Andy Balaskovitz

Greater Lansing, fitting with national trends, is not immune to the heroin epidemic. Will combating it take aggressive law enforcement or a rethinking of drug laws?

If after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deadly overdose in New York and a governor’s assertion of a statewide “crisis” in Vermont you still feel far removed from heroin abuse, think again.

Health and law enforcement officials in Ingham County say heroin abuse is not only a problem, but one that’s steadily grown worse in the past four or five years. In Ingham County, the number of people seeking opiate and heroin treatment has more than tripled since 2008. The term “epidemic” is used commonly as addicts transition from expensive pharmaceutical opiates to cheaper, illicit heroin.

Major Joel Maatman of the Ingham County Sherriff ’s Office said heroin and powder cocaine abuse was a “huge, huge issue” when he joined the department over 25 years ago.

“Heroin has come back with a huge vengeance in the past four to five years,” he said.

“It’s not an inner city issue like it was in the mid ‘80s. Now it’s spreading through small towns like Williamston, Webberville and the DeWitt area. High school kids are getting into it.”

“I’ve been a cop for 38 years,” Maatman said. “I thought heroin died. Unfortunately, it’s come back and hit mainstream America.”

Officials give various explanations for why that is. Maatman believes that a tricounty grand jury’s investigation into the problem led to a spike in arrests in the early 1990s “when numerous murders occurred that were drug related.” That was 20 years ago, and “now those people are getting out. Boom.”

State Police Detective Lt. Tim Gill, who also heads the Tri-County Metro Narcotics Squad, believes the drug has simply come back “in style” since the ‘70s. Also, more users are smoking or snorting it, rather than using it intravenously. “People don’t perceive the same kind of risk as smoking something,” he said. “It’s not as if they’re sticking a needle in their arm.”

And then there are potent pharmaceutical opiates, like OxyContin, that lead users to heroin, a cheaper alternative. Gill said a single, 10th of a gram hit of heroin, called a “bindle,” can sell for as little as $10. Prices for OxyContin vary depending on the strength, but a single 80 milligram pill can reportedly sell for $80 to $100.

“It’s cheap on the streets these days, unfortunately,” said Mary Kronquist, community programs administrator for Community Mental Health, a coordinating agency for federal and state funding that offers treatment to those with substance abuse problems in Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, Gratiot, Hillsdale, Jackson, Ionia and Newaygo counties.

Kronquist has seen a steady increase in the number of patients it treats for narcotics, opiates and heroin abuse. Since fiscal year 2008, the number nearly tripled for its entire service area, from 847 admissions to 2,212. In Ingham County during that same time period, the number more than tripled, from 296 admissions in FY08 to 933 last fiscal year. These are people who don’t have insurance or Medicaid, she said, and doesn’t include those who privately pay or have health insurance.

Moreover, the percentage of people seeking treatment for alcohol abuse versus all other drugs, including heroin, has reversed, she said. Up until five or six years ago, more than 50 percent who came in were seeking treatment for alcohol. “All other drugs combined were usually under 50 percent. Within the last six years, that’s flipped. More people coming in are seeking treatment for illicit drugs on the street, and that’s because of narcotics, opiates and heroin. … Yes, it is serious.”

Nationwide, the number of heroin users increased from 239,000 in 2010 to 335,000 in 2012, according to a recent report from the National Survey on Drug Use. In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to the problem, pointing to a 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates since 2000.

The Lansing State Journal reported in November that the number of fatal heroin overdoses in Ingham County increased from five in 2010 to 16 in 2012. The number held steady in 2013. There was one fatal heroin overdose in Eaton County in 2010 and five in 2012, according to the LSJ.

Maatman, without giving numbers, said crimes associated with heroin abuse — largely home invasion and theft — have “risen dramatically over the past four years.”

The numbers inevitably lead to the question of how do we deal with it? This is where some disagree, or downright dodge the question, on the extent to which users are given treatment.

While police officials, such as Maatman, say it’ll take “aggressive law enforcement” to target traffickers, others advocate treating addicts for the disease that it is. The Drug Policy Alliance, a nationwide group seeking to restructure drug laws in America, believes we should look to several countries — such as Portugal — that have moved to a decriminalization model for possessing all drugs, backed by studies by the World Health Organization that showed the policy didn’t lead to an increase in use. While the group only supports the legalization of marijuana, “For all other drugs, we certainly believe putting people in the criminal justice system is not the way to solve problems,” said Meghan Ralston, the group’s harm reduction manager based in southern California. She was referring to nonviolent offenders charged with possession. For one, she said, such criminal treatment leads to the stigmatization of addiction.

Others argue that such policies signal to the public that using drugs is OK. Ralston sees it differently: “It signals that your life matters to us when we put health and safety above all other things. To suggest that you’re trying to reduce or contain the drug supply — i.e. prohibition as a deterrent — is absurd on its face. Overdoses are climbing higher than ever before. It’s absurd to think the war on drugs approach is working.”