The Gateway Drug

Officials say the increase in heroin addiction is linked to the proliferation of highly addictive painkillers that are overprescribed.

Jason Kuszewski never imagined his life would come to this.

Instead of landing a good job and raising a family, the 26-year-old lives at home with his mom in Clinton Township, struggling with a heroin addiction that has upended his life.

Kuszewski began snorting heroin when he was 17 after getting hooked on narcotic painkillers such as morphine and Dilaudid, which he began taking as a young teenager to ease excruciating stomach pains. Before long, Kuszewski developed a tolerance for the painkillers.

“My friend said, ‘Why don’t you sniff this? It will help with the pain,’ ” Kuszewski recalls of the first time he used heroin. “I was so naive.”

He describes the next nine years of his life as “a hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”

He began injecting heroin and would drive the streets of Detroit until he found a random dealer. In 2009, on his way back from buying heroin in Detroit, police pulled him over twice in one week, finding his stash each time. In late 2011, he was sent to jail for nearly six months after nurses found him with heroin that his then-girlfriend had smuggled into the hospital, where he was being treated after overdosing.

Kuszewski has been to so many rehab centers that he’s “lost count.” In February, he said he’s been clean for a few days, but fears he’ll use again because of the “miserable” withdrawal symptoms.

“I’m fed up with it,” he says. “I sweat, have hot and cold flashes, nausea. I can’t sit still, and my legs are restless, which makes it impossible to sleep.”

Kuszewski is far from alone. The rates of heroin and prescription painkiller addiction are skyrocketing in metro Detroit and Michigan, extending to suburban communities and leading to a shocking number of overdose deaths.

Macomb County, for example, reported 105 heroin overdose deaths in 2014, compared to five in 2003. Oakland County heroin-related deaths more than tripled between 2012 and 2014, from 18 to 61. And in Wayne County, heroin and opiate overdose deaths doubled from 123 to 247 between 1999 and 2013.

Health officials say the increase in heroin addiction is linked to an ongoing prescription epidemic. About 45 percent of heroin users also are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also estimates that people addicted to painkillers are 40 times more likely to use heroin.

“A lot of people who are prescribed pain medication become attracted to how it makes them feel,” says Dr. Paul Smith, a clinical psychologist specializing in substance abuse in metro Detroit. “It reduces their anxiety or depression. They often seek that out when the physical pain or ailment is gone.”

From 2007 to 2014, the number of prescribed Schedule II pills, which include highly addictive painkillers, quadrupled from 180 million to 745 million in Michigan, according to an October 2015 report by the state’s Prescription and Opioid Abuse Task Force, which Gov. Rick Snyder created in June 2015 to tackle the growing problem.

“Prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions,” the report said.

Jodi Debbrecht Switalski

Frustrated by the proliferation of opiate and heroin use, Waterford District Court Judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski resigned on Jan. 31 so she can work directly with families, schools, community leaders, lawmakers, and addicts to combat the crisis.

Debbrecht Switalski attributes the heroin crisis to the proliferation of highly addictive pain medications that she says are overprescribed.

“It takes only 12 doses of opiates to become physically dependent,” Debbrecht Switalski says. “It’s so easy to become addicted, and that’s why we’re seeing so many young people developing an addiction.

“We are creating generations of addicts.”

The heroin epidemic is hitting affluent suburban communities at alarming rates because people with good health insurance are more likely to afford prescription painkillers, drug experts say.

“Increases in heroin usage can be directly linked to prescription drug abusers transitioning to heroin,” the state’s Prescription and Opioid Abuse Task Force concluded in October 2015.

At least 406 people died from opiate and heroin overdoses in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties in 2013, the latest year for which regional statistics are available from the Michigan Department of Community Health. Of those deaths, at least 278 were from heroin overdose. But health officials caution that the numbers are likely a lot higher because heroin is only detectable in the body for a brief period.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if heroin deaths increased even more in 2015,” says William Ridella, director of the Macomb County Health Department.

When Bryan Richards, of Waterford Township, injured his ankle playing basketball in his early 20s, he was prescribed Vicodin, a highly addictive painkiller that he continued to take for two years because he enjoyed the high.

“He liked the way it made him feel,” his mother, Jeannie Richards, says. “He kept saying he was hurting himself on the job or somewhere else so he could get more Vicodin.”

When Bryan was about 24, he began using heroin because doctors would no longer prescribe him the medication, and the street price for pills became too expensive for him to afford.

“He said he was doing us all a favor by using heroin so he didn’t rob us,” his mother says. “I refused to believe it at first. I couldn’t believe it existed here in Waterford Township. He was getting it delivered to the house like it was Domino’s Pizza.”

On Jan. 28, 2011, Richards went to Bryan’s room to check on her 26-year-old son.

“His room was open, and the light was on, and he was slumped over the bed, still in his clothes from the day before,” Richards recalls. “I didn’t realize he was dead. My mind wouldn’t go there. He wouldn’t move. He was stiff. I tried CPR, but the autopsy said he was dead for about 15 hours.”

Heartbroken and racked with guilt, Richards decided her son’s death would not be in vain, so she launched a campaign — Bryan’s Hope — to provide education and prevention support for heroin addicts and their families.

“We are losing wonderful, super people who would have become productive members of society if it weren’t for heroin,” she says. “We are hitting our leaders and politicians over the head with rocks to show them how serious this is.”

In Michigan, heroin-related deaths have risen from 37 in 1999 to at least 369 in 2013, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

For drug dealers, selling heroin is a lucrative business.

For Detroit rapper Kid Jinx, selling heroin on the east side helped him care for his family while his drug-addicted mom traded her food assistance for cash, he says.

Jinx, who spoke on the condition that his birth name not be published, says all of his clients were white suburbanites who often drove around the east side looking for a dealer.

“The crazy part is, many of these kids went to really good schools,” he says. “They came from all over the place to get high.”

Jinx stopped selling heroin in the summer of 2010 to pursue a career in acting and music.

But when one dealer stops selling, another picks it up.

It’s frustrating for law enforcement officials, who have begun addressing the crisis by increasing the focus on prevention and treatment. The FBI also has gotten involved.

“The heroin epidemic that has resulted in so many overdose deaths in our region calls for us to step up enforcement of heroin distribution to save lives,” says U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, of the Eastern District of Michigan. “We are tackling this problem from all sides — prevention, treatment, and enforcement.”

In February, the FBI and DEA released a documentary, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, aimed at educating young people about the dangers of pain medications and heroin.

“The numbers are appalling — tens of thousands of Americans will die this year from drug-related deaths and more than half of these deaths are from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses,” acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in a news release. “You will see in Chasing the Dragon opioid abusers that have traveled a remarkably dangerous and self-destructive path. I hope this will be a wake-up call for folks.”


Overdose deaths from heroin, opioids by county:
(Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services)

  • Macomb County averaged:
    • 56.3 deaths annually from 1999-2011
    • 113.5 deaths annually from 2012-13
  • Oakland County averaged:
    • 16.4 deaths annually from 1999-2011
    • 24 deaths annually from 2012-13
  • Wayne County averaged:
    • 122.8 deaths annually from 1999-2011
    • 191 deaths annually from 2012-13

2013 Deaths from heroin:
(Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services)

  • Macomb County: 94
  • Oakland County: 14
  • Wayne County: 170

2013 Deaths from opioids:
(Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services)

  • Macomb County: 37
  • Oakland County: 14
  • Wayne County: 77

In Michigan, heroin-related deaths increased from 37 in 1999 to 369 in 2013. (Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services)

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services documented 836 heroin-related deaths between 2009 and 2012.

During this time period, the heroin-related overdose death rate doubled from 4.9 deaths per 100,000 residents to 9.8 in 2013.

According to a report compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost half of young people who use heroin also started out by abusing prescription drugs.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, prescriptions for “individual dosage units of schedule II drugs increased” from 180 million in 2007 to 745 million in 2014 in Michigan.