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As heroin and prescription drug epidemic grows, feds look for solutions

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Federal prosecutors and law enforcement from a half-dozen states across the Midwest and South met Wednesday in Detroit.

On the agenda: how to grapple with the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic.

Those gathered at the Detroit summit said this problem is massive—and admitted they’re very much struggling to get a grip on it.

This is a drug crisis where addiction can start with a legitimate doctor’s prescription for painkillers, and lead to ever-more potent incarnations of opiates like heroin and fentanyl.

“The combined heroin and opioid crisis is both a public health emergency and a law enforcement challenge,” said David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for western Pennsylvania and co-chair of the National Heroin Task Force.

The summit was eastern Kentucky U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey’s idea. He says this is different from past drug epidemics, with its quiet, widespread creep into a broad range of communities and demographics.

And the drugs themselves are proving more lethal.

“You’re probably much more likely to die if you become a regular user of these drugs,” Harvey said.

Michigan, Ohio, and Appalachian states have been particularly ravaged by the opiate addiction crisis, the leaders said. They believe much of the regional drug traffic flows out of southeast Michigan.

Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said it’s not entirely clear why southeast Michigan appears to be the regional distribution hub.

But there are likely a number of factors, including the fact that “Michigan has a large population of vulnerable, low-income people who are willing to share their private information in exchange for prescription pills,” McQuade said.

Officials said they would discuss a “regional strategic initiative” to investigate and prosecute the movement of heroin and prescription pills from Michigan and Ohio into other states.

McQuade said law enforcement efforts would target high-level drug traffickers distributing the most dangerous and lethal products. But officials also stressed the importance of more education about the addictive nature of opiate painkillers, particularly for doctors. And they called for more treatment options for addiction.

According to McQuade’s office, heroin use in the U.S. doubled from 2007 to 2012.

In southeast Michigan, Oakland County saw heroin overdoses double from 2013 to 2014. And more than 60 people have died from heroin and fentanyl overdoses so far in 2015 in Wayne and Washtenaw counties alone.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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