2017-12-14 / Front Page

Heroin: ‘It was awful when I was on it’

Heroin permeates Leelanau
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Editor’s note: We present the second and final week of our coverage of a spike in heroin use that has swept into Leelanau, where last month the county recorded its first heroin overdose causing a death. Our sources include a Leelanau County resident who has agreed to discuss his or her addiction candidly in hopes of preventing others from trying heroin. We are leaving out most details of that person’s life, including gender.

We are calling the series, “For the Love of Heroin.”

A drug that calls your name

Heroin calls your name four times a day. It demands about $30 to visit.

Heroin is not to be ignored.

If you don’t have money for a fix, you get it. All you can think about is the warm, sensual content that for a few hours will take over your life.

“I’ve seen people go to the store and steal a bunch of stuff,” said Sam, a former heroin addict from Leelanau County who agreed to be interviewed in hopes of preventing others from following his path. “I’ve seen people steal from their families. I’ve seen people prostitute themselves for the drug.”

All drugs are not the same. Some make you hallucinate; some make you aggressive. Some are sexual.

And some have different effects depending upon their users. Alcohol makes some people mean.

Heroin makes life painless, Sam said.

It’s a quick worker.

“As soon as you shoot up heroin, you feel that high right away,” Sam said. “When you’re on heroin, you automatically go to sleep, but it isn’t sleep and you don’t feel rested after it wears off. You may feel like you had a nap.”

Parties with alcohol can get out of control as drunks turn to crazy antics or turn violent. Not so at a heroin party.

“Mostly when you get a group of people who do heroin, they split up all the money, they all get high, and they all sit in the room for days,” Sam said.

Some addicts are able to continue their life’s course, albeit from an alternative reality.

“I worked while doing heroin. There is a functional alcoholic. Some heroin addicts can work even though they are addicted to it,” Sam said.

* * *

Heroin was once considered an inner-city drug, associated with broken neighborhoods and an occasional talented musician or actor.

Not now.

“We didn’t see it in rural or less densely populated areas of our country,” said captain Jim Bussell with the City of Traverse City Police Department.

He’s spent 26 years in law enforcement, the first six in Grand Haven and the remaining in Traverse City.

“Heroin’s been around a long time. But we never saw it in Traverse City, or it was very rare until the last 5-6 years ... It was a big city problem, which is definitely not the case right now,” Bussell said.

At one time much of the heroin in the United States came from poppies grown in Afghanistan.

“Now a lot of it comes from Mexico. But I think the big story is in fentanyl and carfentanil,” Bussell said.

Heroin sellers and users have historically cut the pure drug with additives to increase their profit. Traditionally heroin was cut with relatively mild substances ranging from baking soda to powdered milk. In the past few years, though, synthetic opioids have entered the mix.

Why?

“It’s more potent, but that’s a good question. The way I’ve had it explained to me is that fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, and carfentanil is another 100 times more potent than fentanyl,” Bussell said.

Carfentanil is a dangerous narcotic used by veterinarians to sedate large animals such as elephants for surgery.

Recently law enforcement has been tracking the emergence of a toxic new mixer called “gray death.”

“I don’t know much about it. I just heard about it late last winter. It’s a combination of heroin and fentanyl and carfentanil and other opioids.”

No guarantee with heroin

Every packet of heroin is a mystery, Sam said. There is no Federal Drug Administration mandate governing the contents of heroin peddled by sellers whose goal is often to make enough money to support their own habit.

“I had people who wanted me to sell. I thought about selling, but then I took a step back. It would have been worse for me because by now I would have been in prison or dead,” he said.

Some heroin looks like brown sugar. Some looks like white flower. Then there’s black tar heroin, which is dark and sticky, Sam said. Heroin mixed with fentanyl takes on a jelly texture.

Heroin is sometimes sold in little blocks wrapped in nonporous paper.

It’s usually heated and liquefied on a spoon, then drawn by a needle through a cigarette filter into a syringe.

Some syringe needles live long lives.

“A lot of people have Hep C from sharing needles. I don’t. I’ve been careful,” Sam said.

Heroin users will do whatever is needed to get the drug into their system.

“I’ve seen people smoke it, I’ve seen people snort it. But mostly I’ve seen people shoot it. There are a lot of people who shoot up drugs here. I’ve seen people shoot up in their feet, and girls in their boobs. I’ve seen people with scars everywhere,” Sam said.

Life on heroin was at first pleasant for Sam. Then more heroin was needed to attain the same state of mind.

And then even more wasn’t enough.

“You are always worried about how you are going to find your next fix. From the moment you wake up, that’s what you think. It was awful when I was on it. You didn’t know how you would get your next fix. Who you would scam for it? Where you would steal for it? What you would do for it?” Sam said.

Three heroin overdoes have been reported in Leelanau County within the past month. While two of the victims were brought back to life by quick-acting county deputies who applied Naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose, 31-year-old Kevin D. Yannett was not revived.

He died.

Investigative officers believe all three ODs were caused by the same batch of heroin that was cut with something that kills.

Sam said most addicts faced with the prospect of quitting heroin or risking death will continue to shoot up.

“I think people don’t think about it, and they really don’t care. Most addicts will try a little bit before they shoot up their normal dose just to see how much fentanyl is in it ... they take their risks,” Sam said.

According to online websites, heroin can become physically addictive in a week.

* * *

News reports have cast dark clouds over President Richard Nixon’s declaration in 1971 of a War on Drugs after a disgraced aide said the effort was actually an attempt to undermine the anti-war effort and imprison African- American heroin users in the inner-city.

But Nixon also appointed the nation’s first “drug czar” in Jerome Jaffe, who prescribed treating drug addiction as a health issue.

“I don’t think you can view it as a war,” Bussell said. “That’s not the way to look at it. It’s a medical issue, it’s a societal issue, it’s a legal issue ... it’s a big task and a big problem to fix. It seems like one (drug) replaces another.”

Indeed, Michigan State Police Lt. Kip Belcher, the district task force commander overseeing three multi-jurisdictional drug divisions, has watched the “drug of choice” for users change from cocaine to crack cocaine to meth to prescription drugs. And now to heroin.

He, too, believes putting more drug sellers and users in jail won’t by itself solve the problem.

“Now we go after it on both fronts. Years ago, we didn’t pay much attention to (the health treatment) element of drugs,” he said.

Belcher said he’s come to realize that two important keys to preventing the effects of drugs on society are to educate people about the danger, and to get people hooked on drugs to enroll in rehabilitation programs.

Too many lives are at stake to concentrate strictly on enforcing drug laws while leaving prevention and cure out of the mix of remedies, he said.

“This is not one socioeconomic class of people. This could be anybody’s kid or really any adult that can be susceptible to becoming involved with heroin. And it can start with someone’s opioid prescription.

“It still becomes an issue of choice, with what you do,” Belcher said.

Sam’s message after awakening from death

Our Sam had one intention when agreeing to be interviewed — to prevent others from following her path.

A path that led to the edge of a grave.

“What happened to me is I overdosed,” she recalled. “That scared me. I realized my life was going downhill ... I wasn’t doing my household duties. I was more worried about getting that drug.”

Just as she was about to die, a first responder administered Naloxone. It worked.

But having the willpower to quit wasn’t enough for Sam to immediately cut off drugs.

“After I overdosed on heroin, I lowered my tolerance level by taking OxyContin and Hydrocodone. Then I would take Xanax and Klonopin for anxiety. I lowered my dosages every day. You can’t just quit heroin cold turkey. You can die like that,” she explained.

Although today heroin holds no appeal to Sam, she remains susceptible to the prescription drugs that led her to heroin and then helped her kick the habit.

“I’ve come down a long road from the age of 12 until now. I’ve been involved with the court system. I realize I’m not getting any younger. I’m confident I won’t do heroin ever again because I almost died. But about prescription drugs, I don’t know. They’re always on my mind,” she said.

Her advice goes twofold, to parents and to people who may be unwittingly led into the drug culture.

“Be more observant of your children. Watch who they are hanging out with. Always know where your children are at all times. If you see any signs of a behavior problem, something is wrong. That’s the red light. Your child is in danger,” Sam said.

Adults, however, are also vulnerable, she added.

“I think that people, if they are going down the wrong path, hanging with the wrong crowd, they should observe more of their surroundings. If you are hanging out with people doing that, you’ll do that. Your peers, they drag you in. People should go for hope. If they see or feel something’s not right, they should ask for help.

“Don’t be scared to ask for help.”

* * *

935-6382.

That’s the phone number for the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center at Munson Health Care in Traverse City. Susan Kramer, program manager for Behavior Health, says the first step for an addict to reclaim life is to call for an appointment.

“When they call, we assess what they need,” Kramer said. “A lot of times we do that over the phone. If somebody says, ‘I can’t stop,’ or “My partner can’t stop,’ then we screen for that level of a case.”

Kramer, too, has noticed the rise in heroin use. But as Sam attests, the lure of prescription drugs remains strong.

“It’s usually a combination of pills and heroin. I would say heroin is on the rise, but they’ll use whatever they can get their hands on,” Kramer said.

Munson offers both inpatient and outpatient addiction programs. Recently the state authorized the center to offer a 30-day inpatient program; the limit was previously 14 days. The program has space for 14 patients.

Heroin users require the longer treatment program to get clean, and the out-patient program is usually out of the question.

After completing the inpatient program Munson case workers partner with nonprofit groups such as Addictive Treatment Services, which operates a halfway house in Traverse City, and Narcotics Anonymous, which lines up sponsors and holds meetings for recovering addicts, to create an individualized plan for continued recovery.

Kramer said Munson offers financial help and advice.

“We’re able to get treatment dollars through the state. That’s complex, so we help patients access funds. We don’t want the financial part to be a barrier to them getting treatment,” Kramer said.

She said there is hope for heroin addicts.

“Help is available, and recovery is possible.”

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