Detroit News-Heroin use by young adults devastates outer suburbs

More cases of drug abuse reported in Genesee, Livingston counties
Mark Hicks and Valerie Olander / / The Detroit News

From The Detroit News
When Ron Schlosser talks to young people about the effects of heroin, his message is simple: There is no such thing as a casual user, and few can easily escape its grip.

He knows this firsthand. His daughter, Erika, died Feb. 16, days shy of her 20th birthday, after a nearly two-year struggle to kick her habit through rehabilitation.

"It's a one-time deal and that one time could be your last," Schlosser told students at Lake Fenton High School at a town hall meeting by Community Parent, a group that recently formed to address teen drug use.

He and others are reeling from a surge in heroin use in Michigan, where the number of people seeking treatment in state-sponsored programs has nearly doubled since 2003.

In Genesee County, about 50 miles north of Detroit, more youths like Erika have injected, snorted or smoked the drug in the last decade.

The percentage of uninsured people treated for heroin at Genesee County Community Mental Health ages 18-29 has increased sixfold to 28 percent since 2003.

The state-funded agency for substance abuse services refers uninsured, underinsured and Medicaid recipients to facilities and programs for treatment.

"It's a pretty huge increase," said Kristie Schmiege, director of substance abuse services for the agency.

More youths have turned to heroin after abusing "gateway" prescription drugs, said Dr. Mark Menestrina, an addiction medicine physician at St. John Providence Health System's Brighton Hospital in Livingston County.

It may come down to economics: It's a quick, easy high at $10-$20 a hit.

"It's 10 times more potent and it remains quite cheap," Menestrina said.

It's tempting for some teens.

Briona Jawhari, 17, used heroin and overdosed two days before her friend, Erika.

On that same day Briona died, Joshua Wood, 19, of Mayfield Township in neighboring Lapeer County, died from heroin. On March 5, in Livingston County, Adam Harden, 22, died after taking Opana, a drug similar to morphine.
'Good kids … bad choice'

The Fenton deaths follow a surge of deaths in 2007 in Pinckney, about 35 miles south, when at least 10 youths died of heroin overdoses, including a varsity athlete who had just graduated.

"These are good kids, popular kids who just made a bad choice," said Fenton Township Clerk Robert Krug, who knew Briona and Erika from coaching them for a middle school debate team.

It isn't just a Genesee or Livingston problem.

The number of people who sought treatment through state programs for abusing the highly addictive drug hovered above 10,000 in the last three years, nearly double the number in 2003, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health — more than for cocaine, crack, methamphetamines and some opiates.

According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, some 180,000 people used heroin for the first time in the previous year — "significantly more" than the average annual number reported from 2002-08.

The spike is due partly to higher opiate production in places like Afghanistan and Mexico, Schmiege said. "It's very available."

There's also less of a stigma attached to using heroin. "It lost its mystique to some degree," Schmiege said.

"If you study drug use through history, drugs sort of rise and fall in popularity. And when a drug becomes really readily available, people start to use it a lot and overdose. … Once that starts to happen and people start to die, then it goes out of vogue."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates the heroin in use today is 20 percent to 50 percent pure, compared with 3 percent to 5 percent in the 1960s, when the drug was diluted to extend the supply, Menestrina said.

Although heroin use appears to be spiking in Detroit's outer suburbs, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, has not seen a noticeable increase in heroin overdose deaths, said Dennis Niemiec, spokesman for the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office.
Some hope education helps

Briona Jawhari began using heroin because she wanted to see what it was like after her mother died of an overdose in 2007, said her father, Sam Jawhari.

The emotional presentation at Lake Fenton High included a 911 call made by Briona's father the day she died.

Operators coached him on how to perform resuscitation on his daughter.

"It was tough to listen to it," said Sam Jawhari after the recording was played for students. "I felt like I was burying my daughter all over again."

Ron Schlosser found out his daughter, Erika, was using drugs on her 18th birthday.

"I tracked her down about 11 that night and I talked to her for hours," he said. "I pleaded with her" not to use heroin, he said.

But she ignored his pleas, shook off rehab and succumbed, he said.

According to Menestrina, "(Young people) see themselves as immortal … Their risk-taking is much higher because they don't think of consequences like older people do. As the perceived harm of any behavior decreases, then that behavior increases."

To spread the word, parents of both teens are active in Community Parent, a group that is pushing for awareness campaigns, health resources and legislation.

Alarmed by the deaths, the group of parents, school and local officials is calling for a state law that would require drug dealers, like sex offenders, to publicly register their addresses.

It's a tool, they say, to keep children safe and law enforcement to keep tabs on dealers.

State Democratic Sen. John Gleason, the bill's sponsor, said: "We have the sex offender registry as a template, so I don't think this will take too long to put together."

Other authorities say the key to prevention is education: experts going to schools and showing the devastation of drug abuse.

"We're trying to show these kids (at schools) how heartbreaking this is and how easy it is to get hooked," said Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell.

"They call it chasing the dragon for a reason. From the first time these kids get high, they keep trying to get that same feeling and they never do."

Staff Writer RoNeisha Mullen contributed to this report.

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