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Follow-up: Heroin death toll still climbing

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By Lynn Monson

2014.01Our January cover story on the alarming number of heroin overdose deaths in Washtenaw County in 2013 was soon followed by several national developments confirming that heroin use is a serious health issue across the country.

When our story went to press in mid-December, heroin-related overdoses had killed 22 county residents in 2013, with three more expected to be confirmed when toxicology tests were complete. The final number, however, was even worse. County Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen said that 31 deaths in 2013 were attributable to heroin overdoses. Things didn’t start any better in 2014; one heroin death was confirmed in the first few weeks of the new year.

Shortly after our January story came out, Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, devoted his entire State of the State address to the “full-blown heroin crisis” faced by residents there. In a similar speech a few weeks later, Maine Gov. Paul LePage cited heroin and other drug use as a growing problem in his state.

But what really elevated heroin to the top of the national news was actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Feb. 2 death from an apparent heroin overdose.

Health officials explained in our original story that the local surge in heroin use and the resulting deaths are part of a national problem tied to the increasing use of pain medications. A certain percentage of the populace is susceptible to opiate addiction and they often slide from legal prescription pain pills to street drugs that are easier and cheaper to obtain.

Dr. Alice Penrose, medical director of the Washtenaw County Public Health Department, said she’s optimistic that recent changes in federal drug laws, which tighten the availability of pain meds, will help. She advocates that doctors more closely monitor the Michigan Automated Prescription Service, which tracks a patient’s narcotic prescription history. The health department plans to release a narcotics overdose death report for 2013 and will continue working with Community Support and Treatment Services (formerly Community Mental Health).

“The most important point for the public is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Penrose said. “If we can keep prescription narcotics off the street, we will prevent many people from becoming addicted to heroin.”

In the face of the dreary news about local and national heroin deaths, it is important for addicts and their families to remember that there is an extensive network of help available to them, said Jim Balmer, president of Dawn Farm, one of the two main addiction treatment centers in Washtenaw County.

“Certainly Ann Arbor and Washtenaw has a problem, but Ann Arbor has one of the most robust recovering communities I’ve ever seen,” Balmer said.

He cited a recent 12-step meeting he attended with between 250 and 300 people. And that’s just one support group among many others that meet literally every day and night to help people from all walks of life.

“We need to overcome the curse of low expectations,” Balmer said. “This community is full of recovering heroin addicts. … Recovery is available. There are lots and lots of opiate addicts who get better.”

Don’t go it alone

If you have an addiction problem, or if a family member or friend is in the grip of an addictive substance, make a call. Today. Whether the problem is heroin, alcohol or another substance, a small army of people who understand and have resources are waiting to help both addicts and their families. Local treatment experts say these are three great places to start:

  • Dawn Farm: 734-485-8725
  • Home of New Vision: 734-975-1602
  • Al-anon: 734-995-4949
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