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New recommendations are out for how to deal with Michigan's opiate epidemic. Now what?

Nov 3, 2015

Kent County Sherriff Deputy Patrick Stewart was on his lunch break last week. Lunch, in his case, was at 12:30 in the morning. He stopped at a fire house in the town of Cutlerville, on the outskirts of Grand Rapids.

"And I heard a very loud knocking, pounding on the door," he says. "When I got to the door, there was a frantic man there saying that he had somebody – his buddy – in the back of his vehicle, and had ODed on heroin, and was no longer breathing."

Stewart called for an ambulance, and started chest compressions on the man. When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic who came to help is actually Stewart’s wife, Amanda. She gave the man a drug called Naloxone. It works as basically an antidote to a heroin overdose, reviving someone who’s on the verge of slipping away. Together, the newly married husband and wife saved the man’s life.

That part of the story is remarkable.

Everything else about it has become far too common, says Kent County Undersheriff Michelle Young.

"Over the course of our entire year, we’ve had almost every week where we’ve had multiple responses for heroin, suspected heroin overdoses," she says.

"We're at the point where we're losing so many people to this and it's become so big in the United States that I just don't think you can ignore it any longer," says Judge Linda Davis

Many counties in Michigan are dealing with the same crisis. Many counties all over America are dealing with it. The Centers for Disease control declared it an epidemic – four years ago. Heroin is just one part of this epidemic. It’s one of a class of drugs called opiates, and for many, many people, the addiction starts with a perfectly legal prescription from a doctor to help manage pain. But opiates are hugely addictive, and more deadly than other drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine.

In Michigan alone, more than 3,000 people have died from opiate use since 2005. Last week, a task force appointed by the governor released its recommendations for how to deal with this crisis

"We’re at the point where we’re losing so many people to this and it’s become so big in the United States that I just don’t think you can ignore it any longer," says Judge Linda Davis. She has watched the opiate epidemic unfold in her courtroom over the past decade. She was part of the governor’s task force to look at what can be done about the problem.

The good news is many of the task force’s recommendations could be easy to implement. The recommendation to make the life-saving drug Naloxone more available, for example. Right now, many paramedics carry it. But Davis wants to see it in every ambulance, fire truck and police cruiser.

"What does it hurt to have it in the car?" asks Davis. "It’s safe to administer, let’s let everybody have it."

The task force also recommended making Naloxone available over the counter, as it is in Ohio, so that parents or friends of addicts can use it to save lives. Davis says she hopes new legislation to make that possible in Michigan will be introduced soon.

She also wants to see changes to the online database that tracks all prescriptions in the state – first, to update the system, and second to require doctors, dentists and pharmacists to check it any time they write or fill a prescription for an opiate.

These recommendations may take a little time to get the details worked out, but they’re not expensive. A much bigger challenge is how the state will help the thousands of people who are already struggling with addiction. Good treatment isn’t cheap. Davis says plenty of people only get one week of addiction treatment covered by their insurance.

"And nobody gets cured after seven days of treatment," she says. "Nobody."

But then you have to ask, who will pay for anything more than that?

So in the end it will not be easy to untangle this mess. I ask Davis, who’s followed this issue closely for a the better part of a decade now, what average people should do at this point about the crisis. She said one thing: If this matters to you, call your legislator.