Government and Health Care

State sees effects of national opioid crisis

Number of overdose deaths increased more than 17 times from 1999 to 2016.

November 3, 2017
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The opioid epidemic continues to ravage communities around the country, including those in Michigan.

Over 60,000 Americans died from drug overdose between March 2016 and March 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is an 18 percent increase compared to the year before, ignited by the opioid epidemic.

In Michigan, 2,335 people died from a drug overdose and 1,689 of those deaths were opioid-related deaths, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). From 1999 to 2016, the MDHHS said the number of opioid-related deaths increased more than 17 times.

Kent County is home to over 600,000 people, where the Kent County Sheriff’s Department said drug overdose is evident.

“We are seeing the effects of the nationwide epidemic here in Kent County,” Sgt. Joel Roon said. “We have had 69 overdoses in 2017 and nine overdose deaths — believed to be all opioid related.”

“We started to see an increase locally in the amount of heroin seized around 2012 and 2013,” Roon added. “We’ve responded to all types of opioid overdose in Kent County, from prescription meds such as Vicodin, (OxyContin), morphine to street drugs like heroin, carfentanil, fentanyl.”

There were 14 confirmed opioid overdose deaths in 2016, according to Roon.

The Kent Area Narcotics Enforcement Team (K.A.N.E.T), a full-time multijurisdictional drug team composed of detectives from five law enforcement agencies — including the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, Grandville Police Department, Walker Police Department, East Grand Rapids Department of Public Safety, Wyoming Department of Public Safety — has done one raid this year.

Opioids are a class of medications used to quell the feeling of pain. The medications can treat acute pain from childbirth and toothaches to chronic pain like cancer and arthritis.

Although opioid medications are used to stop pain, Dr. Cara Poland, a physician at Spectrum Health’s outpatient clinic, said opioids are so addicting that it can cause death.

“In the brain, it accesses in three main areas,” Poland said. “One area is what we would call the pleasure rewards center, and that is what gives opioids their euphoric effect and then it accesses another area in the brain that is called the periaqueductal gray, and that is where opioids desert their energetic effects.

“The third area is in the brainstem, and that is where it causes a decrease in breathing, which is called respiratory depression, and in that area, it is responsible for overdose and the death resulting from the use of opioids.”

Some of the symptoms of an opioid overdose are pinpoint pupils, vomiting, breathing problems, cold or clammy skin, constipation, unresponsiveness and fatigue.

Judge Joseph Rossi of the 17th Circuit Court said he has seen a 50 percent increase for people between the ages of 18 and 30 years old who are addicted to opioids and have committed a crime and/or have used illegal drugs like heroin since he was appointed judge in January.

“My understanding is many times people start out by taking prescription opioids, whether legally or illegally,” Roon said. “When their supply of the prescription medication runs out, they feel like because the addiction is so severe at that point, the only thing they can turn to is heroin.”

In 2015, over 11 million prescriptions were written. That is about 115 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, according to the Michigan Automated Prescription System (MAPS).

Poland said the reason opioids are so addicting is that the brain likes things “that get in and get out quickly.” She said it is similar to when you have eaten and are full but cannot stop the temptation of eating a dessert.

“That is the same area of the brain that makes dieting so hard,” she said. “The things most pleasurable are the things that get in and get out quickly. That is what the brain perceives as the most reinforcing and what I mean by reinforcing is that the brain is going to say, ‘I want that again and again and again.’ So depending on the route you give an opioid, whether they swallow a pill, whether they snort heroin, whether they are injecting an opioid, that changes how quickly it gets to the brain. So the things that get there faster and get out faster, the brain perceives as more pleasurable and this is all done on an unconscious level.”

Sometimes the addiction is so strong, Rossi said parents ask him to confine their child.

“I get these young folks with their parents with them and they say, ‘Hey, I want you to lock my son or daughter up for as long as you can because if you don't do it, they are going to die from an overdose,’” Rossi said.

The state of Michigan received a $16.37-million grant to help prevent opioid addiction earlier this year.

“The addiction epidemic continues to impact families in every community across our state and across this country,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said. “Michigan is making strides in the fight against addiction, and this grant will help us bring those efforts to the next level, helping more families find the support they need to prevent and treat addiction.”

The Kent County Board of Commissioners accepted a $193,000 grant to provide the resources necessary for defendants suffering from a mental illness.

A mental health court will be instituted and operational in January to treat individuals who are diagnosed with a mental illness by a physician. The court will be able to ensure defendants are taking their withdrawal medications and they will be able to attend counseling in hopes they’ll be able to integrate themselves back into the community without the risk of relapsing.

“Jail certainly isn't a therapeutic environment for someone with a mental illness,” Rossi said

President Donald Trump also declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency in October, allowing for more funding.

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