2017-12-07 / Front Page

Heroin: ‘And all your pain is gone’

Heroin becomes drug of choice
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Editor’s note: This week we take an inside look at the heroin epidemic that has engulfed northwestern Michigan including Leelanau County, where we’ve recently had two “firsts” — our first heroin overdose causing death, and the first uses of a powerful drug Naloxone to bring heroin users back from death. Our sources include law enforcement personnel who have worked undercover, in the field and in leadership roles to thwart drug use, and a brave Leelanau County resident who has agreed to discuss his or her addiction candidly. We are leaving out most details of that person’s life, including gender. The source will be referred to as both “him” and “her” while explaining the depth of heroin’s reach into the Leelanau Peninsula.

We are calling the two-part series, “For the love of heroin.” Coverage will conclude in the Dec. 14 edition.

Drugs are part of growing up

“Sam” grew up around drugs, and his life has changed as they have. He started drinking at 12, smoked his first joint at 14, and by 17 was into heavier drugs including cocaine and the prescription opiates that in October were central to President Donald Trump’s declaration of opiate addition as a national public health emergency.

It was about a year after Sam had started heavy into cocaine and prescription opiates that a “close friend” introduced him to the next and usually final level of drug use, taking a needle and injecting heroin into his arm.

Sam attended and graduated from one of four public schools in Leelanau County.

“Any young kid from around here can get anybody to buy alcohol,” he said. “They can just ask a drunk, ‘Hey, if you buy for me I’ll buy you a bottle.’ Or they’ll go steal bottles of alcohol from Walmart or from Meijer,” he said.

Getting buzzed was a necessary part of growing up for Sam, who would have been shunned if he had not indulged at drug-dominated parties.

“All of my peers were all doing the same thing. We started drinking but we then started doing marijuana,” he explained.

By the time they were upper -classmen, Sam and his friends were looking for more excitement, to test their limits. About that time cocaine — specifically crack cocaine — had become the drug of choice.

Sam readily participated.

“As soon as somebody put cocaine there, I liked it. It was hard to let go. I wanted more and more and more, and I had cousins and family members who would bring drugs up here,” he said.

Drugs such as cocaine and prescription opiates were readily available.

“It’s easy to get drugs here, and anywhere here. If you know somebody, that person knows somebody, whether it’s cocaine or heroin. It seems like Traverse City and Leelanau County are big into drugs. But it isn’t big from a perspective of everybody is doing it. All the druggies know the druggies ... I’ve seen people bring bricks of cocaine here. They cut it up and sell it here. They make a lot of money. A lot of money,” he said.

* * *

Kip Belcher has spent much of his professional law enforcement career trying to plug the supply line that brings illegal drugs from downstate to northern Michigan, including Leelanau County.

He’s been enforcing state and federal law that runs against the economic law. Demand for illegal drugs remains vigorous, so as one supply route is plugged another is established.

But there have been some notable victories along the way, including raids conducted by local police agencies on suppliers working out of metropolitan Detroit.

“Upwards of 8-10 people were arrested,” Belcher said. “Can you imagine the surprise when a Leelanau County patrol car is parked in Detroit proper or a suburb? We worked the case back to demonstrate to people in those source cities that they are no longer out of bounds.”

Still, though, the financial incentive remains strong to sell drugs to an ever-increasing number of users.

“There is a substantial profit to be made when you can realize 300 to 400 percent of your investment to have this substance transported up north. Suppliers are always able to find couriers, mules,” he said.

Belcher spent years heading the Traverse Narcotics Team (TNT), which is organized by the Michigan State Police and draws police officers from local departments. The Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office lends deputies on assignment to TNT. Last month Belcher finished his second year as commander of District Task Force Section Commander for TNT and two similar multi-jurisdictional task forces. Combined the task forces provide about 30 police officers dedicated to stop drug trafficking in northern Michigan.

Changes in Sam’s drug use have mirrored those in Belcher’s enforcement efforts.

“Back in the summer of 1999, we were dealing with crack cocaine. Heroin didn’t really surface until 2004. The first case I had was a (heroin) investigation in Bellaire, and then it matriculated into Traverse City,” Belcher said.

The recent popularity in heroin has its base in prescription drugs, which are chemically related and deliver the same type of euphoric “high.”

Both are highly addictive, physically and psychologically.

“By the early 2010s, heroin was starting to supplant the prescription drug complaints at TNT,” Belcher said.

While available across northern Michigan, heroin seems more prevalent along what’s been called Michigan’s “gold coast” — the Lake Michigan shoreline that includes Leelanau County. Belcher, who is based in Gaylord, believes that’s because of the area’s affluence and denser population.

Why heroin, why now?

“I tried heroin when I was 18, but I didn’t get hooked on heroin then,” Sam said. “Back at that time heroin was not like it is now. When I was in high school, it was mostly about cocaine and marijuana and drinking.”

She said the Leelanau County drug of choice evolved to heroin over the past “four or five” years with the cost of drugs on the street having the biggest impact.

The supply of heroin, which is smuggled across U.S. borders, has been fairly steady, as has its price on the streets. However, a nationwide effort to better regulate the availability of narcotic prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet has been successful in cutting down on their availability and raising their prices.

Drug addicts still crave them, but many can’t find or afford them.

“Heroin is easy to find. Prescription meds, they are clamping down. So that’s when people just go find heroin. It’s a quick high. And all your pain is gone,” Sam said.

* * *

Jim O’Rourke, known among his peers as “Rookie,” has gone undercover twice during his policing career.

“It’s like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute,” he said of infiltrating the underground world of drugs. While working through TNT, his first stint was spent on the Washtenaw Area Narcotics Team as a maintenance worker in a 300-unit housing complex.

“It was really deep undercover. We took a lot of acid off the street, LSD. I was coming out of the Marine Corps, and I got a citation from the Michigan State Police. I think offers get an adrenaline rush. That’s why it’s good to pull a guy out of that after tours.”

While working for the Leelanau Sheriff’s Office, he was assigned to TNT for three years. Methadone, which is used in the treatment of opiate addition, was and continues to be used as a street drug.

“They were grinding it up and injecting it. They ground it up and put it in a spoon, pulled through a cigarette filter and injected it. But the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) got rid of 20 mg tablets and now you can only buy 10 mg pills,” O’Rourke said.

Heroin has been the benefactor, said O’Rourke, who has maintained his law enforcement contacts since retiring from the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office.

“The drug of choice was Methadone. Now you can get cheap heroin. Now, like the person who died (of a heroin overdose), you don’t know what’s in it. Is it Borox, or is it rat poison? You don’t know,” O’Rourke said.

What he’s learned for certain, however, is that the price is right for heroin.

“I don’t know exactly what heroin goes for, but I understand it’s $10 and it’s readily available for the people who use it,” he said.

O’Rourke also knows that the underground world of drugs in Leelanau County is growing, and it’s dangerous.

“My partner called me and said ‘Seven.’ I said, ‘Seven what?’ He said that seven people that we interviewed died from overdoes, or car accidents, or accidents, or maybe they had gotten murdered. One kid got murdered because he testified for us.”

Editor’s note: Next week we’ll continue the series with an inside look at how heroin controls the lives of its victims and its negative effect on Leelanau County. We’ll also take an inside look at a “heroin party.”

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