A Look Inside the Heroin Epidemic in Detroit, Michigan

Detroit, Michigan has experienced a rough start to the 21st century. The 2008 downturn hit the automotive industry and economy there hard. While the market is on the rebound, the city continues to struggle with a different problem. Prescription opioid abuse and black tar heroin from Mexico keep many people from seeking gainful employment and contribute to rising overdose deaths in the area.

Detroit, Michigan Heroin, Opioid Abuse on the Rise

Since 2000, the heroin epidemic and the number of overdose-related deaths in Michigan has astronomically risen. In 2014 alone, the state experienced 568 opioid-related overdose deaths and 433 heroin-related deaths. Over the first 15 years of the 21st century, more than half of all overdose deaths were attributed to opioids including heroin.

In Sterling Heights, one of Detroit’s suburbs, heroin overdoses may have taken the lives of two residents in as many days in late 2016. One was a teenage woman, and the other was a young man. Both were found outside in grassy areas, having died of apparent overdoses. In the area, police report handling up to five overdoses every week because of the heroin epidemic.

In a given month, an average of 2-3 people dies from a drug overdose. Some involve heroin, while others include a mixture of opioids, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and other dangerous drugs. Over the last few years, opioid-related overdoses superseded traffic accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the state. Per information from the Michigan Automated Prescription System (MAPS), white males between the age of 25 and 54 were most likely to die of an overdose in the state. Wayne County, where Detroit sits, experiences higher than average overdose death rates when compared with other counties in the state, although the data compiled stops at 2012.

New Dangers in the Opioid Battle

If heroin wasn’t deadly enough for some users, the type of drugs sold on the streets today often contains much more potent ingredients. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil was never intended for human use. The drug is an elephant tranquilizer, and an almost invisible amount of the substance can contribute to an overdose. Dealers often lace heroin with these additives to keep users addicted to the drug and in need of ever-stronger formulations.

In October 2016, Wayne County associated 19 deaths with carfentanil toxicity. If consumed, the drug can cause death within a matter of minutes. It is 10,000 times stronger than morphine, and emergency responders who reach victims in time may need to administer 5-6 times the normal dosage of Naloxone (an opioid antagonist) to prevent an opioid-related death.

What Makes Opioids So Addicting?

In many communities across America, several factors increase the likelihood of an opioid and heroin problem. Anyone can fall victim to the addictive qualities of an opioid prescription or heroin. The drug binds to opioid receptors in the brain to block pain and release endorphins. Users experience a flood of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. The experience causes them to forget about the emotional and physical pain of reality.

While this sounds like a nice experience, it also represses the body’s ability to naturally fight pain and it depresses respiration. During an overdose, the drug slows breathing and the flow of oxygen throughout the body so much that a user will suffocate even in oxygen-rich environments. Without access to Naloxone, the lack of oxygen causes death. The victim loses consciousness and never wakes up. Overdoses commonly happen when users relapse after recovery and forget to account for their loss of tolerance and when users knowingly or accidentally try new formulations of the drug. Too much of an opioid will cause death for anyone.

Factors Contributing to the Detroit Heroin Epidemic

In Detroit, Michigan, accessibility, cost-efficiency, and prevalence all fuel a rising drug epidemic. Many users do not start using heroin on a whim. Instead, they receive a valid prescription from a physician or a friend offers some extra Hydrocodone lying around. The feel-good experience seems harmless enough. Factors Contributing to the Heroin Epidemic in Detroit, MichiganWhen the prescription supply runs out, users who crave the high will do anything to achieve the feeling of euphoria again. They turn to heroin, and drug dealers are more than happy to oblige. Over time, heroin ravages the body to the point that users feel the need to take more not to get high, but to stave off the symptoms of withdrawal.

Quitting opioids is hard, especially in areas known for accessibility. For many in Detroit, heroin is only a phone call or short walk away. Users can access the drugs as easily as they can order a pizza or an Uber driver. Heroin today is inexpensive and purer than ever. In many cases, a user can purchase heroin more easily than a pack of cigarettes. It’s a cost-effective vice until it takes over someone’s life.

More subtle contributing factors may underscore Detroit’s drug epidemic. When residents lost their jobs and their homes during the 2008 downturn, many had trouble landing on their feet. As financial troubles begin, relationships fall apart, and other life struggles arise, people increasingly search for an escape. When opioid prescriptions and heroin are around, people use them to escape from reality instead of facing it.

Battling the Opioid Epidemic in Detroit and Across Michigan

The University of Michigan is using a five-year $1.4 million/year grant to help medical professionals manage patient pain levels without opioids. The “Hope Not Handcuffs” program in Macomb County and other programs in the state strive to create rehabilitation opportunities for addicts instead of jail time. Many find the change of environment out-of-state programs provide offer better results than both inpatient and outpatient programs in Michigan.

One thing is certain: In Detroit, in Michigan, and across the country, the battle against opioids is only beginning. States must stop the tide of drug traffickers bringing inexpensive and potent heroin into their communities. Communities themselves must spread the word and support addicts who cannot break the powerful grip opioids create.

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