Panel discusses opioid addiction, calls it ‘a fight for life'

In 2015, nearly 2,000 people overdosed in Michigan and many of them were addicted to heroin.

LANSING, MICH. - A panel of experts gathered in Lansing Wednesday to discuss the growing menace of opioid addiction, including a man whose son died from a heroin overdose and a drug enforcement official who said the problem cannot be eliminated with arrests.

“A Fight for Life – Tackling Opioid Addiction,’’ included comments from four panelists.  Perhaps the most emotional presentation came from Mike Hirst, an electrician from Jackson County who lost his son, Andy, to a heroin overdose in May, 2010.

"Now that's the reality of where this all ends,'' he said, holding a small urn of his son's ashes. "I like to take him with me when I go speak.''  

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.

Andy Hirst was 24 when he died from a heroin overdose while working at a construction site near Jackson.  An outgoing graduate from Grass Lake High School who excelled in sports, Hirst became addicted to Oxycontin, an opioid pain reliever, his father said.  

“He went from Oxy to heroin; it’s basically the same thing as far as the brain is concerned,’’ Mike Hirst said. “He hated this drug and he hated what it made him become. He was sent back to rehab three times and died with a needle still in his arm.’’

Michigan State University professor Dr. Jed Magen says heroin addiction often gets its start with opioid painkiller abuse.  When access to prescription medication runs out, addicts look to heroin, which is much cheaper and readily available.

“It’s fairly inexpensive so the cost of heroin has come way down,’’ he said. “That makes it much more readily available.’’

The addiction, he says, has a powerful grip. “You develop such a dependency that you’re driven to do all kinds of things that people would think are crazy, but are really related to that drug-seeking behavior,’’ Magen said. “So you steal, you break and enter, and if you’re a woman, prostitution.’’

Michigan State Police Lt. Lisa Gee-Cram, who heads a drug enforcement team in Jackson County, says the economic opportunity for heroin dealers is too good to pass up.  Dealers who spend $48,000 for 2.2 pounds of heroin can make more than three times that amount in street sales, Gee-Cram said.

“You don’t get a taste of that money and walk away when you get out of jail,’’ she said. “These dealers are predators and they’re after some very vulnerable targets when you start talking about the addicts.’’

When she talks to people arrested for heroin-related crimes, about 75 percent say their addiction started with prescription drugs, she said.

“It’s so prevalent out there; we’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,’’ Gee-Cram said. “The truth is, it is going to take everybody.

 “It is a disease,’’ she added. “And until society starts to understand that, we’re going to have a hard time moving forward.’’

Wednesday’s discussion was sponsored by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

© 2017 WZZM-TV


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