As the number of heroin overdose deaths continue to rise, state leaders gathered in Lansing this week to discuss opioid addiction and its impact on communities across the state.

"In that little urn, those are my son's ashes,'' Mike Hirst said, holding a red urn as he described how his 24-year-old son died at a construction site with a needle still in his arm.

"There's nothing like seeing your kid on the ground with paramedics trying to pump air in their lungs, trying to make their heart beat,’’ Hirst said. “I don't wish that on anybody.''

His son, Andy Hirst, died in May, 2010 near Jackson. A woman who provided him with heroin was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison.

Hirst was among four panelists who spoke at Wednesday’s forum called “A Fight for Life – Tackling Opioid Addiction.’’

After his son’s death, Hirst launched Andy’s Angels, a non-profit to educate the community on opiate abuse and to offer support for families of those suffering from addiction.

Nearly 2,000 people died from overdoses in Michigan in 2015.

Panelists say the heroin epidemic can be traced to opioid painkillers, such as Oxycontin. It is what led Andy Hirst to his heroin addiction.

"Nobody thought so much about the addictive potential,’’ said Michigan State University professor Dr. Jed Magen, one of the speakers at Wednesday’s conference. “In fact, at first it was thought if you have a lot of pain, you're not really going to develop an addiction. That proved not to be true at all. So, in some ways, it's unintended consequences.''

Many of those arrested by police for heroin possession say they began using heroin because it is less expensive than opioid medications and not difficult to find.

Opioid addiction crosses all social and economic lines, said Michigan State Police Lt. Lisa Gee-Cram, who oversees a multi-jurisdictional police drug unit in Jackson.

"What does a heroin addict look like? Like me. Like you,’’ she said. “Sure, maybe they're a little more identifiable because they don't have a shower and they don't have a place to stay. But you don't know. You don't know who that person is anymore.''

Drug dealers, she says, prey on the addiction. The profits are huge.

A kilo of heroin costs about $48,000. That 2.2 pounds, when sold on the street, can earn dealers more than $178,000, Gee-Cram said.

"These dealers are predators, that's exactly what they are,’’ she said. They're like piranha in the waters and a lot of destruction happens because of that.

"The by-product of that is the epidemic that we're seeing and we're left to deal with,'' Gee-Cram said. "And that's the death and the destruction that comes along the way.''

Michael Hirst says he would like to see more programs like Andy's Angels available in communities to help struggling addicts and to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic.

The Michigan State Police post in Gaylord last fall launched its own ‘Angel’ program to help people with an addiction find the assistance they need without fear of arrest.

"The public needs to get engaged,’’ Hirst said. “We need to get rid of the stigma. We need to quit looking at these young kids like they're a rotten kid from the wrong side of town with a bad set of parents. That's a total fallacy. This crosses all lines.'’

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