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The scariest drugs you can take

Like most people who grew up in the sixties and seventies, I knew a lot of people who tried a lot of drugs. Marijuana of course, but also LSD, psilocybin, peyote, later cocaine.

But the one drug that was not in, back in the day, was heroin. We saw heroin as something horrible and frightening, which was used by filthy street prostitutes, skid row junkies and failed jazz musicians, most of whom would be dead soon. Maybe a few wounded veterans had turned to it when they could no longer get morphine, but it was not a drug that was cool.

Well, guess what? There’s a new heroin epidemic, and the face of it is not a junkie in the alley behind an inner-city mission. It could just as easily be your son or daughter. Heroin deaths are rapidly increasing, as are those from an even more dangerous painkiller, fentanyl.

Last month I had Jeff Gerritt, a journalist who is an expert on these issues, on a television show I do in Ohio, together with a woman named Colleen Jan. Jan is a thoroughly middle-class, retired teacher whose 33-year-old son, Brett, died last summer of an overdose of heroin combined with fentanyl. He had battled addiction for years, but treatment facilities were inadequate.

What’s even scarier is that the number of heroin and fentanyl deaths has been nearly doubling every year in Toledo. I suspected the same might be true here, and I was right.

In Wayne County alone, deaths from things like cocaine and Oxycontin have been declining. But heroin deaths are increasing, and deaths from fentanyl have tripled.

And there have already been nearly as many deaths from fentanyl in combination with heroin and other drugs this year as there were in all of last year. I don’t think anybody ever sets out to become a heroin addict.

What’s been happening is that doctors have been all too willing to prescribe prescription painkillers. For many people, these tend to be addictive, at least psychologically, and also terribly expensive. So, they turn to what they can buy on the street, and that is heroin, fentanyl, or heroin cut and combined with fentanyl and other drugs.

Tom Watkins, the head of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority, is acutely aware of how big a problem this has become. Last fall, his agency took over substance abuse disorders, and they are launching a massive community education project on where to call for help.

The number is 1-800-241-4949. Operators are there around the clock, and able to refer people to prevention, recovery and treatment facilities. If the problem is outside Michigan’s largest county, they can refer you to the proper facilities in your area.

Watkins, a former state schools superintendent, told me his agency is putting up billboards, and hopes to make that number at least as well known as the one for a famous ambulance-chasing law firm. 

The goal is to increase awareness of what drugs do and the treatment options there are, and erase the stigma around admitting that there is a problem. If what they are doing saves even a few of the thousands of lost lives, they think it will have been more than worthwhile.

 Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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