New laws focus on addiction battle

MARQUETTE – As the state and country face an ongoing drug addiction problem, lawmakers continue to look at a wide array of legislative efforts to address the issue, including easing penalties for certain offenders, expanding treatment resources and limiting access to materials used in illegal substance production.

In 2007 alone, illicit drug use cost the U.S. more than $193 billion in lost productivity, health care and criminal justice costs, while the number of drug-induced overdose deaths surpassed homicides and car crash deaths in the nation, according to whitehouse.gov.

Gov. Rick Snyder earlier this year formed the Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force, which released a report in October that included more than two dozen recommended changes in the areas of prevention, treatment, regulation, policy and outcomes and enforcement.

“The impact of prescription drug and opioid abuse is being felt in every community across Michigan,” Snyder said in a press release. “It crosses all demographic, geographic and political lines.”

The use of methamphetamine in the Upper Peninsula has also been a growing concern for law enforcement, said State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba.

“The scary part is, between that and heroin, … law enforcement is telling us there’s an uptick in it,” he said. “At first I thought it was kind of centrally located in the southern part of the Upper Peninsula, and that’s simply not true. It’s spread out throughout, and meth is the same thing.”

State reform

Michigan ranks 18th in the nation for overdose deaths, and lawmakers are hoping one bill recently signed into law can reduce some of those overdose deaths that could have been avoided by the action of others who may have been involved.

House BIll 4843 unanimously passed the state House in October, received support of the entire Senate on Dec. 9 and was signed into law by Snyder on Wednesday.

It allows people under 21 years old to report a drug overdose by themselves or another without fear of legal punishment for the illegal use of certain drugs.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of “Good Samaritan” or drug immunity law.

“The scope of what offenses and violations are covered by immunity provisions varies by state,” according to the NCSL website. “Some states have opted for more restricted immunity while states such as Vermont provide immunity from all controlled substance offenses.”

While some believe the Michigan immunity law should apply to all ages and a wider set of drugs to include heroin and cocaine, it only pertains to the illegal use of painkillers and prescription drugs by those under 21 years old.

Meanwhile, legislators have also looked to cut off access to materials used to make illegal substances.

In recent years, Michigan adopted the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx – an electronic system used to track the purchase of medicines used in meth production. It also enacted a meth offender registry that blocks the sales of those medicines to individuals appearing on the registry.

Beyond that, legislation has been passed that essentially limits the amount of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine – components used in meth production found in over-the-counter medicines – that a group of people can purchase.

The group purchase of those materials is known as “smurfing” and can involve several people buying what they’re legally able to, then combining the drug to produce a larger quantity of meth.

Casperson said it’s a tricky issue for legislators.

“It gets into that area where you’re real close to a line because there’s simple things that you and I can naturally just go buy and that’s what they’re using to create this problem,” he said. “So I hate to ruin it for the law abiding citizen … going to pick up these medications and stuff that they normally would use for good use, but clearly there’s a problem when people are buying up large volumes of it. You know there’s something else going on.”

Last year, the state passed a law that addressed racketeering involving meth production, which made smurfing a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

However, lawmakers this year have looked to change that by giving prosecutors the option to charge an offender with a misdemeanor for soliciting someone to purchase those materials, which would carry a penalty of up to one year prison and a fine of $1,000.

Individuals convicted would also be blocked from purchasing any products containing those materials without a physician’s prescription under the Methamphetamine Abuse Reporting Act.

On the prescription pills front, the state uses a monitoring program called the Michigan Automated Prescription System, which tracks Schedule 2-5 controlled substances prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies and practitioners.

That information allows physicians, pharmacists and others to search the data for patient-specific reports to review prescription records and enables practitioners to determine if patients are receiving controlled substances from other providers.

However, Snyder’s task force recommended updating or replacing that system, while also requiring those who prescribe and dispense prescription drugs to register and use the tracking system.

Some of the task force’s other recommendations include:

– providing easier access to Naloxone, a drug that reduces the effects of an opioid overdose;

– stiffer sanctions for health professionals who violate proper prescribing and dispensing practices;

– requiring additional training for prescribers of controlled substances and law enforcement personnel who don’t normally operate in that area; and

– updating licensing regulations of pain clinics, which hasn’t been done since 1978.

“We are beginning to work on implementation of the task force’s recommendations but don’t have any updates to share at this point,” Laura Biehl, Snyder’s communications manager, said recently in an email.

National effort

State-level policies that enhance prescription drug monitoring programs or regulate pain clinics, such as what Michigan is considering, have shown promising results, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2010, the state of Florida took action to regulate pain clinics and stopped health care providers from dispensing prescription painkillers from their offices. As a result in 2012, Florida saw a decrease in oxycodone overdose deaths of more than 50 percent.

In 2012, New York began requiring prescribers to check the state’s monitoring system before prescribing painkillers, which resulted a year later in a 75 percent drop in patients’ seeing multiple prescribers for the same drugs, according to the CDC, which a similar approach in Tennessee resulted in a 36 percent decline in that same method used by patients.

Last year, the Obama Administration released the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy that calls for drug policy reform.

Among other items, the strategy includes:

– training health care professionals in early detection and treatment of substance use and addiction;

– expanding access to treatment; and

– taking a “smart on crime” approach to drug enforcement, such as expanding specialized courts that divert nonviolent or first-time drug offenders into treatment instead of prison.

The strategy also looks at expanding educational prevention programs geared toward youths, which Casperson agrees with.

“I think on the educational side it’s got to be more than just talking,” he said. “It’s got to be visual. You really have to show young people – here’s where you’re heading.”

Ryan Jarvi can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.