Individual drug addictions weigh heavy on entire community, officials say

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena Township resident Russ Rich recently shows off two jars of syringes and needles he found while walking around his neighborhood over the last four or five months. He said he fears for the safety of neighborhood children who could stumble across the drug paraphernalia and harm themselves.

ALPENA — A vicious circle or a dirty merry-go-round.

That’s how Presque Isle County Sheriff Joe Brewbaker described the long-term fallout from the temporary high drug addicts enjoy.

Drug use causes the collapse of relationships, employment, and reputation, Brewbaker said, and it often leads to crime that can make its way back to drug use.

“Once in jail and placed on probation, (addicts) often return to jail on probation violations, because they can’t stay clean because of their addiction,” Brewbaker said. “It’s a dirty merry-go-round, because, eventually, they lose their jobs, which increases stress levels at home because of financial woes, and that stress leads to addicts to fall off the wagon and reenter the court system. It’s a vicious circle.”

That circle plays out for many in Northeast Michigan, where both the arrest rate for drug charges and the hospitalization rate for overdoses vastly exceed the statewide rate, according to state data.

And, as those many merry-go-rounds spin, they pull down more than the hundreds of drug abusers in the region, police, treatment specialists, and others say. Drug use hurts neighborhoods, schools, and the economy and drives up the cost of health care for users and non-users alike.

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Janelle Mott, 26th Circuit Court juvenile officer, said she and her coworkers deal with drugs from two sides: They see kids end up in foster care when their parents abuse drugs, and then those kids end up in the court system for using narcotics themselves.

Mott said substance abuse leads to a lot of child abuse and neglect cases.

“You’ve got parents whose daily substance abuse has risen to a point where you’ve had judicial termination that these kids are better in foster care than they are with their parents,” Mott said. “I think that is heartbreaking.”

While it doesn’t list the nature of the abuse or neglect and cases could involve many issues other than drugs, the 2020 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows the rate of confirmed victims of childhood abuse or neglect in all four Northeast Michigan counties — Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona — exceeded the statewide rate.


Russ Rich lives on North Partridge Point Road in Alpena Township.

Shortly after a park opened down the road from his place, he began to see an increase in drug paraphernalia and other trash scattered on the roadside, he said.

Over the last four or five months, Rich, a retired Michigan State Police trooper, collected two jars full of syringes he believes drug users left in the area. He said the suspected drug users also sped through the residential area and started bonfires that got out of control.

The park has now closed, and the number of needles Rich finds has dropped, but he warned the users likely just moved on to another place.

“I have a 7-year-old granddaughter that likes to ride her bike around these roads, and the curiosity of youth is going to see that (needle) and pick it up,” Rich said. “Two milligrams of fentanyl will kill an adult, so can you imagine a kid picking that up?”


Alpena High School Principal Romeo Bourdage said school officials catch students using vapes, or electronic cigarettes, containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and dabs, or highly concentrated compounds containing the drug.

Occasionally, school leaders catch kids with marijuana wax, a form of hash oil.

Through the group Kids and Parents United Together, the school organizes activities such as Freshman Bash and a senior lock-in to keep kids from using drugs on nights they might otherwise choose to do so, Bourdage said.

Still, about 21% of high school students in Alpena, Montmorency, and Alcona counties reported trying marajuana in the 2019-20 school year, according to the state’s Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth survey. About 2% of those students took a prescription drug not prescribed to them in the 30 days prior to the survey and 7.5% were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone in the year prior.

“When you have 15- or-16-year-old kids using things like fentanyl, heroin, meth, that’s problematic,” said Mott, the juvenile officer. “I don’t think that’s a large number, but I think the kids who are using are using at a high rate, and that’s problematic.”


Many fine workers become addicted to drugs and end up in and out of jail, said Brewbaker, the Presque Isle County sheriff.

He said business owners often work with employees who struggle with addiction and allow them to return to work when they’re released from jail, but, eventually, businesses need to hire someone new because of the reoccurring issue.

Hiring and training new employees takes time and money, Brewbaker said.

“As we know, finding help is challenging right now, so drug addiction has a big impact on businesses and their ability to operate,” Brewbaker said.

Beating a drug problem can have big benefits for a community’s economy.

For every $1 a community invests in recovery efforts, they get a $7 return as people in recovery buy homes, get jobs, and go shopping, increasing sales, property, and income taxes, said Joyce Fetrow, project associate at the Michigan Center for Rural Health/Northern Michigan Opioid Response Consortium.

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Because of the seriousness of the treatment, overdose victims receive lofty hospital bills, said Chuck Sherwin, president of MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena.

Many uninsured users — especially those without a steady income, or those who spend much of their funds on getting their next fix — don’t pay those bills, leaving the hospital and taxpayers to pick up the tab.

On overdose victims, “we spend more money than we are reimbursed from Medicaid, and the cost of care is often greater,” Sherwin said. “Someone who overdoses usually is admitted for longer, or is placed in intensive care, which is usually more expensive. Despite that, our number-one priority is to treat and help those people, because drug addiction is a disease. It just gets frustrating when the same people keep coming in.”

The abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs costs the nation more than $740 billion a year in costs related to crime, lost work productivity, and health care, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reports no deaths by overdose in Alpena County in the past 12 months, drug overdose has led to 73 Alpena County emergency room visits since July 2020.

Sherwin said not every ER patient experiencing an overdose is an addict. He said some overdoses stem from people, especially seniors, confusing their prescribed dosing.

For those who overdose on narcotics because of addiction, he said a majority of the cases stem from the abuse of painkillers, like oxycodone and oxycontin, heroin, and alcohol.

“Besides the drugs, we have a high alcohol abuse rate in our area, too,” he said.

News staff writer Julie Riddle contributed to this story.


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