Heroin and opiate usage spikes in Washtenaw County
At the end of June, every University of Michigan police officer will carry Naloxone, a generic version of the name-brand drug Narcan that reverses the effects of an overdose by blocking opiate receptors in the brain. This new training and policy comes two years after the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office began combating peaking opioid overdose numbers in the area. The University of Michigan Police Department is currently working on adding this additional officer training in the face of an increasing number of young people overdosing.
Marlene Radzik, the Washtenaw County Sheriff Office’s police services commander, said among the products acquired by the department between 1998 and 2000, powder and crack cocaine were the most common. Now, heroin is the drug of choice for young people between the ages of 15 to 30.
A growing epidemic
It has been 12 years since 31-year-old Ashton Marr, an Ann Arbor resident, was first prescribed Vicodin for an emergency appendectomy.
“I was able to maintain the image that I was doing okay, but my addiction hit a new low,” Marr said. “It was like it just took over my life and my mind.”
She has long since healed from her 2004 surgery, but the effects of Marr’s introduction to opioids left her with a frustrating, painful addiction. After starting the drug, continued use was all too easy. Marr said that even though she began to experiment with drugs as a student at Pioneer High School, she began to spiral out of control when she began studying at Washtenaw Community College.
“It was actually easier for me to get illegal drugs than it was for me to get alcohol,” Marr said. “People get started taking old prescriptions that they find in the medicine cabinet.”
Radzik is also well-versed in the heroin epidemic in Washtenaw County — she has been on staff with Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office for 27 years and worked as an undercover cop from 1998 to 2000. When starting road patrol in 1991, she said, it was extremely rare to respond to a heroin overdose.
“If we did, it was normally — I’m not saying this is a positive thing — it was usually a long-term, older user that had other health issues,” Radzik said.
According to Washtenaw County Public Health, more than 400 residents overdosed on opioids between 2011 and 2015. Younger white males were more likely to unintentionally overdose on heroin — with an average age of overdose of 32 — while unintentional prescription opioid overdoses were more common among older white women, with an average age of 51.
There is no discernible set of risk factors — such as socioeconomic status, parental occupation or a familial history of drug use — that can be tied to the recent chain of overdoses. Often, a child is injured in a sport or at a park and needs some kind of surgery. Years later, they continue an addiction to the painkiller first prescribed to them following the operation.
As the number of fatal overdoses in young adults and children spiked in Washtenaw County, Radzik started asking questions — and parents tended to repeat a similar narrative.
“Every story that I heard was the same: that their child had a sports injury and was given Vicodin or Oxycontin or in a car crash,” Radzik said. “Soon they're addicted; they’re buying pills off the street.”
Marr’s story follows a similar path after her surgery. She described her childhood with sentimentality: She loved Girl Scouts, did gymnastics, weathered her parents’ divorce, but says she felt normal as a kid. After addiction found its way into her life, she said, everything changed. Living mostly out of her car, she felt tired, miserable and alone.
“Addiction for me was a very isolating experience, and I was really ashamed of it,” Marr said. “It was like it just took over my life and my mind, and I really was up and running with opioids. I truly believed I was the only heroin addict in Ann Arbor.”
New policies and combative treatments offer some hope, though. In the first five months of officers carrying Naloxone in 2014, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office reported officers’ use of the drug saved 11 lives.
According to Radzik, the number has risen to 26 since last December. Naloxone could have saved even more lives back when the number of overdoses first peaked in 2012, she said, but the department had to wait for a bill allowing non-medical personnel to administer the drug.
The sheriff office’s supply is currently funded by a grant that was facilitated by the Washtenaw Opioid Project, a community-based collaborative effort organized in July 2013 as part of the Washtenaw Health Initiative. Their aim is to improve access to coordinated care for the county’s low-income, uninsured and Medicaid-supported populations. The grant is currently funding the replacements for the office’s now-depleted supply of the Naloxone.
In the sheriff’s office, police are trained to administer Naloxone regardless of whether or not they can confirm the user took an opioid, as Naloxone has no harmful effects to an individual not experiencing an overdose. They are trained to administer another dose within five minutes of the first because the drug could wear off and the victim could resume overdose effects. Inserted through the nose, Naloxone could stay active in the body between 30 to 90 minutes, depending on a person’s metabolism, while opioids can last up to two hours.
While marijuana and prescription drug use have been consistent issues on campus, hard drug use has been climbing at the University as well, according to a 2015 report, and administrators across a number of campus units are beginning to respond to the recent spike.
Last December, the University Injury Center held an Opioid Overdose Summit to educate researchers, community members and those involved in the pharmaceutical field on current prescription drug opioid research, to prevent overdose mortality and to discuss other unresolved issues. Central Student Government also tried to raise awareness by launching a prescription drug misuse campaign during the winter 2016 semester.
The University’s Division of Public Safety and Security is adding additional officer training as well. DPSS spokeswoman Diane Brown said, beginning in July, all University police officers, including housing security officers, will have access to and will be trained in the deployment of the Naloxone.
“We are right now finishing up our week-long training on a variety of subjects,” Brown said. “It takes us several weeks for us to be able to take our whole group of people and put them in training. We do it in rounds, and so, by the end of the month, we will have finished the last of those rounds.”
Brown said witnessing an opioid overdose could be difficult to discern right away, which is why the training is so important.
“When you come upon somebody, there’s a wide variety of things, particularly if they’re unconscious, which overdose tends to apply,” Brown said. “But then there's the situations where people are going into an unconscious state from a drug interaction, and sometimes those can be a wide variety of responses based on the person.”
Withdrawal and the road to recovery
Radzik said purchasing prescription opioids at the street level could range from $30 to $50 in some cases, so users often turn to cheaper methods of substance abuse.
Marr made the switch to heroin after several years of abusing Vicodin.
"I didn't seek out heroin. Somebody proposed it to me when I complained that Vicodin wasn't doing it for me anymore,” Marr said. “I'm shocked today to hear how easy it is to come by drugs; many times it was people that I already knew, friends. When I made the transition from opioid-based prescriptions to heroin, I would snort it, but that became less and less effective — I built a tolerance to it — so I resorted to taking it intravenously."
Marr said she had a dealer and would take trips to Detroit, though she said such trips are not necessary, as she claims heroin is available for sale in Washtenaw County, including Ann Arbor.
Radzik said the user, is in many cases, not the only one who suffers, as families bear much of the burden financially and otherwise.
“When a family loses a child to heroin, they have to say, ‘But they were such a good kid,’ ” Radzik said. “When a family loses a child to cancer, they don't have to say that.”
Marr described how her addiction began to take over her life.
“I needed more and more of it to not feel sick,” Marr said. “It wasn't about getting high anymore. I need it to function, not just emotionally but physically.”
Marr said she never feared anything more than the feeling of withdrawal.
“My bones felt like glass,” Marry said. “I felt sick to my soul, crawling out of my skin — I felt, I’m not sure how to describe it. You’re hot and cold at the same time. You can’t sit still, but you feel even sicker trying to get up and pace around. That is a contributing factor as to why I’m still in recovery. I don’t ever want to do that again. It’s awful.”
During her time suffering from heroin addiction, Marr was almost entirely isolated from the support of her family and friends, whom she kept in the dark about her condition, mostly because she was afraid they would associate her with the stigma attached to drug addicts.
"I mostly hid it from my friends,” Marr said. “Addiction for me was a very isolating experience, and I was really ashamed of it. Being from Ann Arbor, there are certain substances that carry less of a stigma.”
Marr said she relocated to a halfway house in Brighton after several months of treatment before she moved back to a transitional home in Ann Arbor.
Along with the Brighton Center for Recovery, which helped Marr recover from her addiction, there are dozens of other recovery efforts in the area. Besides the Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project, there is The Home of New Vision, which provides treatment, transitional housing, counseling and peer support services throughout the county.
Matt Statman is the program manager for the University branch of the Collegiate Recovery Program, a nationwide initiative that offers non-clinical support to students in recovery from alcohol or other drug problems. The program launched at the University in 2012 as part of Wolverine Wellness — a section of the University Health System aimed at supporting and promoting healthy behaviors related to alcohol, drugs and sexual health — and is funded by student health fees.
“We are really focused on social support, helping students that are in recovery support each other,” Statman said. “Everyone knows what the perception of alcohol and other drug use on college campus is. And they need to have extra, and the University has invested in that.”
According to the CRP’s website, there are more than 10 12-step meetings a day near the University campus. Statman said the program is supported by the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, a national movement aimed at incorporating these services into every college campus.
The program offers educational opportunities, support groups and meeting places on campus, where students in recovery can study and socialize. Statman said the program supported 47 regular participants this past academic year.
“Recovery from addiction is possible,” Statman said. “If people are struggling, there’s help and there’s hope here.”
According to Statman, alcohol continues to be the number one problem on campus, followed by marijuana and stimulant drugs like ADHD medication.
“We also do see some students that are in recovery from opioid use,” Statman said. “They tend to be students who have recovered and have then chosen to come back to school, but we still have students using opioids, but it's not one of the top three that we have now on campus.”
As someone in recovery himself, Statman has first-hand experience with Naloxone.
“I’ve been in recovery for 15 years. I’m a U-M alum, and I was saved by Naloxone a couple times years ago by first responders,” Statman said. “I know that a lot of opioid addicts at some point end up overdosing and going to the hospital, and paramedics have been carrying Naloxone for a long time.”
Radzik said Naloxone has been a valuable tool for the department in combatting overdoses. Giving survivors another chance at life could mean another chance at recovery.
“These addicts don’t want to be addicts; every single one of them wants help,” Radzik said. “It’s a disease.”
Marr has now been sober for three years and is enrolled as a student at Eastern Michigan University. She said she owes her life to the Brighton Center and frequently returns to give lectures on her experiences in recovery.
“When I do a talk related to recovery people often come up to me afterwards and say, ‘You just don’t look like the type,’” Marr said. “There is no type. It can be the elderly, who now have higher rates with problems related to long-term opioid prescriptions.”
Facing Addiction, a national advocacy movement, estimates there are 23 million Americans in long-term recovery, and one-third of all American households are affected by substance abuse disorders. The movement also found that 90 percent of people in need of treatment do not receive it.
Marr said the entire community benefits when people find recovery instead of incarceration.
"When people use words like 'junkie' or 'crackhead,' that conjures up the image of people living under a bridge,” Marr said. “It just further adds to the stigma and the shame and the guilt revolving around addiction. Why add to that? Why make it harder for them to find help?”
Marr attended an event called the Impact Forum and by chance met Derrick Johnson, the director of community engagement at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, who offered her a job at the Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project, an organization that champions on behalf of those with substance use disorders on local, state and federal levels and works to educate the community. She is now the executive director.
“It's really through family community support that I've been able to able to build a life worth living,” Marr said.