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Michigan’s Heroin Problem

Flint, Michigan is the poster child for urban decay. Most of the urban skyline was erected during the Roaring Twenties. More “No trespassing” signs than business shingles decorate the decrepit downtown buildings. Single mothers make up one-third of the city’s households. Rates of violent crime are seven times higher than the national average. It is a cold, concrete labyrinth during the harsh Michigan winters, and it is southeastern Michigan’s source city for heroin.

The Face of Heroin Addiction in Michigan

Everyone expects to find heroin in Flint. In the 1970s, Flint was a bustling metropolis thanks to General Motor’s factories. After the deinvestment and deindustrialization of the 1980s, followed by “white flight,” the city crumbled into a criminal’s Pleasure Island. Back in 2003, only 4.7 percent of young adults aged 18-29 claimed heroin as their drug of choice. In 2011, 26.6 percent said so.

Drug busts are a matter of scheduling in the Flint-Tri Cities area. In early 2015, the Flint Area Narcotics Group (FANG) seized several bindles of heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid administered in severe invasive surgeries and to hospice patients. The deadly concoction was also discovered in neighboring Lapeer and Sanilac counties. FANG officers have reported larger than average seizures, an uptick in felony charges, and a proliferation of tainted heroin, which can cause heart lining infections, hepatitis B and C, kidney disease, and dozens of other health problems.

Flint, Michigan is the face of heroin. But it is not the body.

The Rise of National and State Heroin Usage

Michigan has a heroin problem. So does the rest of the nation. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, heroin use has doubled from 2007 to 2012. It is not consigned to the inner cities, to African-Americans, to high school drop-outs or depressed divorcees. It is an equal-opportunity addiction. Heroin addicts may end up in a Flint back alley, but their journey begins elsewhere.

In October 2015, more than 500 state officials met in East Lansing to dissect the state’s widespread heroin problem. Nick Lyon, State Public Health Director, said the number of kid overdoses due to heroin had tripled over the previous decade. Michigan State Police Director Col., Kristie Kibbey Etue, chimed in, “We’re seeing young women finding heroin to be [their drug of choice]; they think it reduce[s] their weight sometimes. We have actually victims as young as 14 years old that are addicted to heroin.”

Wayne County, Macomb County, Genesee County, Oakland County – heroin paints with a broad stroke. In fact, most houses invite the drug or its derivatives into their homes.

How Heroin Abuse Begins

It’s called the pills-to-heroin progression. Throughout Michigan and much of the nation, opioid painkillers are liberally administered for wisdom tooth removal, for postpartum depression, for invasive surgery recovery, for juvenile delinquency. Some begin their journey through underage drinking and marijuana smoking. For some, opioid addiction starts over the first two or three days of use.

Randy O’Brien, Director of the Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse, blames loose locks on medicine cabinets and Vicodin and OxyContin prescriptions for spawning the problem. “But that source will dry up,” he says, “and [they’ll] start looking out on the streets … They’ll graduate to heroin. They start snorting it and before too long they start using needles for the better effect.” In many areas, heroin costs less than prescription drugs. Those that do develop dependency on prescription opioids usually accept or steal them from close family and friends. Dealers are all too willing to provide free samples.

Killing Goliath

The glut of heroin supply and users has overwhelmed the Michigan system. Rehabilitation facilities have longer waiting lists than pop star concerts. Resources of law enforcement are being increasingly eaten up by dealer drug busts and prosecutions. Meanwhile, on Detroit and Flint buses, heroin bindles flow freely, hidden inside gum wrappers, shoe soles and private body parts. And it percolates through that network, across toll roads and through school doors, through doctors’ prescriptions and willing family members, until Flint spreads throughout all of Michigan.