Economy drives a spike as prescription abusers to cheaper, more dangerous choice

Sep 17, 2012

Prescription drug abusers turn to cheaper, more dangerous choice

The tough economy is influencing Metro Detroiters’ illegal drug choices, experts say, with prescription drug abusers turning to a cheaper — but more dangerous — alternative: heroin.

During economic downturns, drug users go bargain-hunting like other consumers, said Lt. Darcy Leutzinger, head of Warren’s Special Investigation Division, which handles narcotics.

“People are going for what they can afford; the economy drives it,” he said. “When times are tough, and the drug prices get too high, people want more bang for their buck. Heroin is cheaper than pills, and it’s a high that lasts a long time.”

Prescription drugs such as Vicodin sell for as high as $15 a pill, depending on their strength, Leutzinger said. “OxyContin or the other heavy-duty painkillers can go for as high as $40 per pill on the street in the Detroit area, and as much as $60 per pill down south,” he said.

Conversely, a “teener” — a packet containing 1/16th of an ounce of heroin — costs about $10, Leutzinger said. But the cost savings are offset by the danger, Leutzinger said.

“One of the problems with heroin is, you never know how strong it is,” Leutzinger said. “That’s what leads to overdoses.”

Opiates or opioids, which include heroin, were involved in 680 overdose deaths in Michigan last year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Heroin abuse in Michigan has skyrocketed, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health Bureau of Substance Abuse and Addiction Services’ 2011 annual report, which showed the number of people receiving treatment for heroin abuse jumped from 7,857 in 2001 to 10,924 last year.

“We’re seeing a large number of overdoses from prescription drugs as well,” Michigan Department of Community Health spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said. The agency’s most recent figures show that, between 2007 and 2009, 246 men and 190 women died from prescription drug overdoses in Michigan.

Use takes hold among youth

Leutzinger said people who otherwise wouldn’t experiment with street drugs are getting hooked after being prescribed painkillers for legitimate medical issues and then finding the price too high.

“You know exactly what you’re getting with pills,” he said. “With heroin, you never know. That’s how people end up dying.”

Lynda Zott, a community organizer at CARE of Southeast Michigan, said: “Prescription drugs are readily available, and there’s the misconception that because those drugs are prescribed, they’re safe.”

Zott, whose agency provides information about drugs and referrals for low-income people seeking treatment, added: “When they switch from prescription drugs to heroin, that’s obviously highly addictive.”

The problem affects most communities, no matter how poor or prosperous, said Rich Isaacson, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. And, he added, use has taken hold especially among young people.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a suburban school district where heroin isn’t an issue,” he said. “You might think the more affluent communities haven’t been affected by heroin in the schools, but they are. A lot of people are surprised to hear that.”

In Clinton Township, Diane Henton, a 66-year-old grandmother, and her twin 19-year-old grandsons — Marco Delano Henton and Mario Anthony Henton — are accused of selling heroin out of an apartment on 19 Mile, across the street from Chippewa Valley High School.

According to police, the twins confessed they used the apartment because many of their clients at the school were afraid to venture into Detroit to buy drugs. Diane Henton was charged with maintaining a drug house. Her grandsons have been charged with drug possession with intent to deliver on school property; delivery of a controlled substance, less than 50 grams; and maintaining a drug house. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 23.

‘The Heroin Express’

Although statistics show heroin use has remained steady among young people over the past few years, law enforcement experts said they’ve seen a tide of youths switching from prescription drugs to heroin.

“It’s definitely the trend we’ve been seeing, both with young people and the overall population,” said Warren Police Commissioner Jere Green, who, at the request of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, added two members to his drug squad to tackle the city’s heroin problem. “On the street, heroin is just cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs.”

Suburbanites on Detroit’s eastern border who are wary of driving into the city to purchase heroin often take SMART buses into the city to avoid getting caught and having their vehicles confiscated, police said.

The problem became so pervasive that Detroit Police, in cooperation with police in Eastpointe, Fraser, Clinton Township, Roseville and Shelby Township, in 2009 set up a sting operation on the buses. Police nicknamed the Gratiot SMART bus line “The Heroin Express.”