Prosecutor, Sheriff: Mason County’s opioid problem is on the rise.

October 6, 2017

Prosecuting Attorney Paul Spaniola, left, and Sheriff Kim Cole.

Prosecutor, Sheriff: Mason County’s opioid problem is on the rise.


By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Mason County has not been immune to the increase of opioid abuse in this country. During the monthly meeting of the Mason County Democrats Thursday, Oct. 5, Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Spaniola and Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole addressed the group and discussed the topic about opioid abuse, particularly heroin usage.

The prosecutor and the sheriff both concurred that Mason County has an opioid problem and that heroin is one of the top drugs of choice among local opioid users. They also agreed that local law enforcement has stepped up to tackle the problem but arresting and prosecuting people is not the complete answer; the answer is also not to constantly save drug addicts without forcing them into some type of treatment.

“I knew Mason County was going to have a heroin problem back in 1998,” Spaniola said. “I was doing defense work at the time and I started to see cases where people were being charged with Methadone.” Methadone is used in the treatment of heroin addiction and Spaniola said addicts were driving to Muskegon Heights to get their Methadone treatment from a clinic there. “On top of that, doctors were prescribing it for pain on an increased basis and I knew sooner or later it was going to explode. Today, there are more opioid prescriptions written in Michigan than there are people who live in the state. Monroe County is home of a doctor who has written more opioid prescriptions than any other medical professional in the world; writing 200 times more than the average medical professional.”

Sheriff Cole said Mason County has seen an increase in overdoses, an increase in opioid related vehicle crashes and also an increase in opioid related deaths. This year, to date, two out of the four fatal vehicle crashes, which have resulted in five deaths, have involved drivers who were under the influence of an opioid, Cole said, adding that there have been 13 drugged driving arrests so far this year while there were only 12 last year.

Cole said he is projecting that the Mason County Jail will be over 40% over budget in medical costs this year because of drug issues. “It is our responsibility to take care of inmates when they are at the county jail,” Cole said. “These are people’s relatives and friends. We will be at least $66,000 over our $130,000 budget for medical costs this year.”

Cole said progress is being made through law enforcement but that’s not the total answer. He said one indicator that law enforcement is being effective is not only the increase in direct-drug related crime arrests but also the decrease in crimes that accompany drug related issues, such as retail fraud (commonly known as shoplifting). Cole said it is common for drug users to shoplift from a store and then try to return the item for cash and then use the cash to purchase drugs. In 2016, Mason County saw 55 retail fraud complaints that could be traced back to drug use, Cole said.

This year, there have only been 23 such complaints. Heroin possession arrests are also up: In 2016 two heroin arrests were made in Mason County; so far this year there have been eight arrests.

Both Spaniola and Cole agreed that arresting drug users does not solve the roots of the problem, which include prevention and also shutting down the drug dealers and manufacturers.

Spaniola said a few years ago state legislatures passed a Good Samaritan law that will give an overdose victim immunity from prosecution for drug use when the overdose is called in by a bystander. While the law had good intentions, it has also prevented those victims from getting the help they need. Beginning last year, local first responders started carrying Narcan, a drug that can be injected to counter the opioid stimulation in a person’s brain. To date, several people’s lives have been saved by first responders this year because of the early administration of Narcan (advanced life support ambulances have carried Narcan for several years).

“Unfortunately, many of those people come out of the overdose and make the statement that it’s one of the best highs that they ever had,” Spaniola said. “Plus, the Good Samaritan law prevents us from making any type of arrest that is directly related to the drug use so we cannot court order the person to treatment. In addition, when we are able to prosecute people for drug use, we have found that there are very few treatment options available in Michigan Department of Corrections facilities or local county jails.”

Efforts have increased nationally to decrease opioid prescriptions, which are responsible for many addictions, Cole said.

“I used to think that drug users were these people who were in some back alley, and kind of down and out in their lives,” Cole said. “But, in the case of opioid addicts, that is not necessarily the case. We are seeing a dependency from all age groups, from teens to the elderly, and from all socioeconomic groups.”

Some audience members asked about prevention programs in schools.

“I think that prevention is important but we need to shut down the availability of these drugs, especially heroin,” Cole said, adding that another issue with current legislation is that it prevents law enforcement from using people on probation for drug-related crimes from being used as informants. “That has been a major stumbling block for us,” the sheriff said.

Spaniola urged the members of the local Democrat party to contact their legislators and express their concerns about the opioid problem and also concerns about the laws that hinder law enforcement from doing its job.

“I can tell you in my experience as a defense attorney and as a prosecuting attorney that I have found that 85 to 90 percent of the crimes committed are drug or alcohol related, to some degree,” Spaniola said. “The bottom line is more has to be done to address these issues.”

Locally, more public awareness is being made through local collaborations, such as the Leeward Initiative (see related story here).  Several public forums are scheduled in the very near future as well. For more information on those forums (Community conversation on solving the opioid epidemic.); (‘Tall Cop’ tackles big issue).

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