Deadly opioid abuse targeted in Michigan

(Journal stock photo)

LANSING — Mike Hirst is someone who knows the heartbreak of losing a loved one to a drug overdose.

The Jackson man’s son, Andy Hirst, died of a heroin overdose in 2010. During the time his son battled addiction with prescription drugs and heroin, Hirst got numerous calls about his son being unresponsive and unconscious. The last time he got the call, his son died with the needle still in his arm.

“So I get there, and there’s nothing like seeing your kid on the ground while the paramedics try to pump air in their lungs, trying to make their heart beat,” Hirst said. “I don’t wish that on anybody.”

Opioid abuse and deaths from it are on the rise in the U.S., and Michigan is one of the states seeing a significant increase. Almost 2,000 people died from drug abuse in 2015 in Michigan, a 13 percent increase from 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Michigan also saw a 13 percent increase the previous year as well.

Gov. Rick Snyder and state legislators are working to combat the problem with several measures.

Republican Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton is proposing legislation that would require schools to include education on opioids and the potential for addiction in the health curriculum because she said she wants young people to learn how easy it is to become addicted. She also sponsored legislation that would require doctors to obtain reports from the updated Michigan Automated Prescription System, a database that monitors prescriptions, and discipline prescribers if they are not obtaining reports. Under the old system, it took up to 10 minutes for practitioners to search for patient-specific reports on drug history, but now it takes less than five minutes to get information.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, is sponsoring legislation aimed at improving the relationship between patients and doctors before prescribing an opioid drug. The measure is designed to prevent doctor shopping and keep people from obtaining multiple prescriptions, possibly to use or sell. Bieda said he lost a friend who died of a drug overdose and that this epidemic affects many people.

David Neff, clinical assistant professor for osteopathic medicine at Michigan State University, said the rise in opioid use and abuse is complex. He said it partly goes back to the late 1990s and 2000s when there was a more aggressive focus on treating pain. He also said there also was some misinformation that underemphasized the potential risk of opioids, coupled with people looking to use opioids as a hedonistic experience.

The DEA last year released a drug threat assessment that showed 53 percent of people who obtained prescription opioids got them from a friend or relative. They in turn got them from a doctor.

A danger of prescription drug abuse is that it can lead to use of more dangerous drugs such as heroin. Prescription drug use may be more prevalent, but heroin is cheaper and easier for users to get. Some drug dealers lace it with carfentanil, a more powerful opioid, which is used to put down large animals such as elephants.

Hirst said a first step to addressing the problem is getting rid of the stigma, engaging the public and talking about it as a serious issue.

He said his son initially admitted to him that he was hooked on prescription drugs.

“Little did I know ’til he told me later on, he had already went from OxyContin to heroin,” Hirst said. “But he said, and this is something that all relates to the stigma, he said, ‘Dad when I told you prescription drugs, didn’t that sound a lot better than saying I was on heroin?’ I said absolutely.”

“He hated this drug, he hated addiction, he hated what it made him become,” Hirst said. “In that little urn, those are my son’s ashes, now that’s the reality of where this all ends.”