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How will Michigan end the opiate drug epidemic? Ask these people.

Jul 16, 2015

This is the third part in our documentary, The Hidden Epidemic. You can hear the full documentary on the air today at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., or catch up online. Part one is here. Part two is here.  

It’s been a decade. Maybe more. Thousands have died. Many more had their lives destroyed. It’s been a national epidemic, but Michigan has been especially hard hit.

It’s an epidemic of drug addiction to opiates.

Michigan's drug death rate per 100,000 people was 18.5 in 2013. The U.S. average was 14.6.
Credit Carolyn Gearig / Michigan Radio

While Michigan has been one of the worst places for the epidemic, it has not been a place on the forefront of finding solutions.

So I went on trip to a place that is: Gloucester, Massachusetts.

When I arrived, I couldn’t even get through breakfast before hearing about how the opiate epidemic is affecting people in Gloucester.

I stopped in at a place called Two Sisters Coffee Shop to get some breakfast. I ordered pancakes. Then I heard the people around me, all talking about heroin.

“My daughter, she had surgery, and they gave her Oxycontin,” says Brad Pierce, who sits in a booth with his wife Lindsay, finishing up their coffee. “And then she still had a problem after that. And they gave her another prescription and then another prescription, and then she got hooked on that.”

He keeps going.

“She was a 4.0 student in college, and it’s because of the surgery. And the doctor’s just giving prescriptions out to ease the pain,” he says. “And then she went from that, and it was cheaper to get heroin … now she swears she’s fine and she’s clean. But we can’t tell.”

The Pierces aren’t the only ones affected.

“We’ve lost so many people that have died,” Brad Pierce says.

“My son is 31,” jumps in Patty Philbrick, the owner of Two Sisters Coffee Shop. “So he’s probably lost, in the past 10 years, probably 10 friends. And they still don’t learn. And they still go out and do it. And when somebody overdoses and dies, they want to go get that dope from that person, because that was good stuff, ‘cause it killed somebody. That’s how crazy that drug is.”

Stories like this, unfortunately aren’t just in Gloucester. They’re everywhere.

While Michigan has been one of the worst places for the epidemic, it has not been a place on the forefront of finding solutions.

The reason I went to Gloucester is because a few months ago, after a community meeting to discuss yet another round of deadly overdoses in the town, the Gloucester Police Department announced that it was going to try a new approach to handle the program.

This new approach was announced first on Facebook. And it was so simple, so obvious, and yet so radically different, that this Facebook post was shared millions of times. It made national news.

The approach is this: Going forward, any addict who shows up at Gloucester Police headquarters and asks for help will immediately get that help. The department has lined up volunteer addiction sponsors, they call them Angels. It’s lined up treatment centers willing to take addicts in for detox. And the people who turn themselves in, even if they have drugs on them, won’t be arrested.

“We’re at that epidemic level where I think innovation is what’s going to drive us out of this,” says Gloucester police chief Leonard Campanello.

The Gloucester Police Department's Facebook post offering detox, recovery assistance, and an "angel" mentor.
Credit Gloucester Police Department / The Willstonian

I sit down in his office overlooking the harbor on a Friday morning. He’s in jeans, sitting behind a desk covered in papers. I ask how his day is going so far?

“You know,” he says, “drinking from a fire hose.”

Life is always busy for a small town police chief. But it’s been especially busy for Campanello ever since his department announced his new policy on Facebook.

So, for a small city police department, we were immediately overwhelmed, and we knew we had hit a nerve.

“We got a reaction that we never expected,” he says. “I think within 4 or 5 days, we had 2.2 million individual hits on our own Facebook page. And we know that in today’s world, 2.2 million hits is yesterday’s 2.2 million signatures on a referendum ... So, for a small city police department, we were immediately overwhelmed, and we knew we had hit a nerve."

“What’s your take on why you hit a nerve?” I ask.

“I think that people are recognizing,” he says, “whether it be through their own experiences, which are becoming more widespread, or the evidence that’s being medically produced that addiction is not a choice. It’s not a crime. And it’s a disease, and it needs to be treated as such …  Our post to the people, tapped into something that they had been feeling all along, which is they don’t want their police departments to arrest the user who is suffering from this addiction. They want more avenues to help.”

One problem, though, is how to pay for that help. A number of treatment centers stepped up and offered to help with detox. But that’s just the first step. Long term treatment is expensive. That's part of the reason why so many people never get it. It’s not unusual to hear about people putting a second mortgage on their home to pay for rehab, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Campanello says the problem of how to pay for treatment hasn’t been solved. But he knows who he’s going to ask for help:

“We have the anticipation that entities that are involved in this, insurance companies and pharmaceuticals, will step up and clean up the mess they’ve made,” he says. “We’ve made comparisons, pharmaceuticals, to the Exxon Valdez. There was a mess created. And, no one starts with a needle in their hand. We want to bring them to the table, because we think they’re part of the solution. And the solution is, not only clean up the mess you made, but you got to wipe down every penguin that got oil on it, and in this case, every person that started out with a prescribed drug from a doctor, and ended up with a needle in their arm.”

As of last week, the Gloucester Police Department announced 32 people have been placed into treatment through the ANGEL Initiative.

As of last week, the Gloucester Police Department announced 32 people have been placed into treatment through the ANGEL Initiative.

And in June, Campanello co-launched a new nationwide non-profit group, called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. Its goal is to spread the idea of the ANGEL Initiative to police departments across the country.

"A bunch of pissed off people."

Michigan has no program like the ANGEL Initiative, at least not that I’ve been able to find.

But there are signs here of a way to move forward, a way to start to beat this epidemic.

So I want to talk about what happened in Fraser, Michigan in 2007.

“Well, Ryan, at 16, he was everything you wanted,” says Mark Rudolph, sitting on a sofa in his living room in Fraser. I sat down with Rudolph to hear what, by now, has become a familiar story. The story of how his child died from a drug overdose.

“He was working as many hours as he could find,” Rudolph says of Ryan. “Had his own car, getting decent grades in school. But somewhere between 16, 16-and-a-half, I don’t know what happened.”

Ryan started getting into drugs. That much Mark and Ryan’s mom knew. They tried to get him help. At one point, their son was arrested. They planned to pick him up the day he was released from jail, to drive him straight to a rehab facility. But Mark says the jail let his son out a day early. Ryan found his own way to heroin. Then Ryan’s mom got a message on her phone, telling her where she could find Ryan’s body.

“Ryan’s half-brother went to that location,” Rudolph says. “And sure enough, he was rolled up in a rug and just dumped.”          

It was one of many overdoses of Fraser kids that year. As anger over the problem spread, someone called a community meeting. It was held in the basement of a local church.

Mark Rudolph went.

“There was just a bunch of pissed off people in the basement of this church,” he says.

It was about 80 people altogether, mostly just shouting at each other.

But then:

“There was a group of recovering young people there,” Rudolph says. “And, one of them said, ‘Let us talk to your kids.’

Rudolph’s voice trembles as he recalls how the conversation drifted on, the anger still rising in the room.

“I finally said, ‘Are we listening to these kids over here?’” Rudolph’s voice cracks. “’Because they’re the only ones that are saying anything different.”

Rudolph says the superintendent of Fraser schools was in the room. He told the group, he’d make it happen – he’d let the recovering addicts, and Mark Rudolph, come talk to kids at Fraser High about the reality of opiates.

This might not sound like a huge deal. But it was surprisingly rare.

After her son, Matthew McKinney died in Grandville in 2004, Mary DeBoer wanted to do almost this exact same thing - go into the high school, and talk about the dangers of addiction. She says she was allowed in once. After that, she couldn’t convince any school to let her talk about the problem that had claimed her son’s life.

Mark Rudolph says he saw the same kind of indifference in Southeast Michigan.

“Fraser, and Tower High School, which is in Warren, were the only two high schools that would let us in to speak to their students,” he says. “We put together a package, and we sent it to every superintendent in Macomb County … We didn’t get one reply. Not a single reply from any of them.”

“What explanation do you have for not getting a response?” I ask.

“Most of them,” he says, “with schools of choice especially, they were afraid to admit that they have a drug problem. I believe that from the depths of my heart."

But when parents, school leaders, and community leaders started really talking about the problem in Fraser, things actually changed.

Out of that one meeting in the church basement in 2007, a new organization was born. Families Against Narcotics, or FAN.

In May, I went to FAN’s monthly meeting in Fraser, and met with FAN’s Executive Director, Andrew Fortunato. We stood in the same church basement where FAN began in 2007.

FAN has been growing ever since that night. There are now FAN chapters around the state. FAN has been at the center of pushing for a change in the response to the opiate crisis in Michigan. And people stay active. There were about 100 people in the church basement for that May meeting I went to. I didn’t record the meeting. Many people shared deeply personal details. And it’s clear that the effects of the opiate epidemic on this community are still raging.

But in Fraser, unlike many other places, people are actually getting together and talking about it, supporting one another.

“It’s refreshing each and every month that we have one of these monthly meetings,” Fortunato tells me. “Because, it’s not always what you get out there. There’s a lot of stigma … on everybody’s part. What does it say about me as a parent if I raise an addict? What does it say about me if I am an addict? People look at me weird because I am. And all that gets erased down here, and we just get to be people for a minute - learn from each other, be accepting of one another. And try to figure out what to do about the situation that we find ourselves in.”

Fortunato tells me one of the most important parts of this meeting is that it isn’t just addicts and their families who show up. It’s not just people who manage recovery programs. It’s not just police officers, not just judges and lawyers.

It’s everyone together.

“It’s important that it is,” Fortunato says. “It’s such a comprehensive, systemic problem, that this is what’s necessary for the solution, right? It affects everybody in our society, and if not you directly, then you definitely indirectly.”

FAN is one organization that’s been able to bring people together who each have a role play in solving the epidemic.

And that movement is just starting to gain traction.  

Finally, a shift.

 “I am actually, for the first time, very optimistic,” says Linda Davis, who’s president of FAN, and a judge in Macomb County.

"I am actually, for the first time, very optimistic," says Linda Davis, president of Families Against Narcotics

She says the first two years of FAN, she felt like she was banging her head against a wall. But just in the past year and a half, suddenly, things have changed. People are finally willing to talk about the problem of opiate addiction.

I ask her what changed to make this possible.

“I just think that we kept beating the doors down and talking and educating enough people that you get to the right people, you make the right connections, and all of a sudden it starts pulling together and it happens,” she says.

Michigan ranked in the top third of states for 2013 drug-related death rates, with a rate of 18.5 deaths per 100,000 people.
Credit Carolyn Gearig / Michigan Radio

Like, last year, Michigan passed a new law that allows more people to get prescriptions for a drug called naloxone - it works like an antidote to a drug overdose, reviving someone who’s slipping away.

Because of that law, naloxone is now in every every Macomb County Sheriff’s office vehicle. Many other Sheriff’s offices and police departments are following suit. And parents can now get naloxone for their children. That will save lives.

But when I ask Davis what else Michigan should be doing to stop the epidemic, and stop the deaths, she has a long to-do list. It includes:

  • Mandatory naloxone prescriptions to accompany every prescription written for an opiate.
  • More money for addiction treatment in Michigan.
  • Legislative limits on how many pills each doctor is allowed to prescribe.
  • Mandatory checks on the state’s prescription drug database every time an opiate is prescribed for a patient.  

That last item on her list could be a big one. Michigan has a database for every prescription that’s written in the state. It’s called the Michigan Automated Prescription System, or MAPS. It’s there specifically so doctors can check and make sure they’re not giving a patient something that will put them at risk. This database can also show which patients have a problem – if they’re getting opiates from more than one doctor, for example.

Opiate painkillers and heroin are two main causes of drug death in Michigan. The number of painkiller deaths peaked in 2006 and has been decreasing since, while heroin deaths are rising.
Credit Carolyn Gearig / Michigan Radio

Lots of doctors have started checking this database before writing a prescription for an opiate. But not everyone does it. And it’s not mandatory. Some doctors - Davis says - especially dentists, don’t even know the database exists.

Other states that have mandated checking these kinds of databases have seen drastic reductions in drug overdoses. Michigan has yet to take this step.

Michigan has barely even started talking about the problem.

“That’s the biggest problem,” Davis says. “We need to break the silence. You know, people are ashamed if they’re an addict. Families are ashamed if they have an addict living with them. This is a disease. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s nothing to ignore.

“And, I think that once we start opening up the lines of communication about this - you start talking about this topic with people, you’re going to be shocked at how many people you meet that are dealing with this on a personal level. It’s rampant.”

In June, Governor Snyder appointed a new task force to look at how Michigan can respond to the opiate epidemic. Judge Linda Davis is on that task force.

The governor said in his state of the state address this year that he’d like to see policy proposals by the fall.

Many of the ideas are already out there. Other states have had task forces. Other states have passed laws. Other states have responded, at least in some way to this deadly epidemic.

After years of failing to respond, Michigan is starting to change course.