- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

PORT HURON, Mich. (AP) - Howard Colby lost 18 years of his life to addiction.

He’s spent the past 28 ensuring others don’t do the same by sharing his story.

But the fight against opiates, Colby said, isn’t just the job of a prosecutor, a police officer, or a recovered addict.

It’s the fight of the community for the community.

“You’ll never eradicate the drug problem by just arresting the drug dealers - not as long as there’s a demand,” Colby told the Times Herald of Port Huron ( https://bwne.ws/1y58vYs ).

“… If we don’t do this as a community, it will run rampant.”

As rates of prescription drug abuse and heroin dependence increase in the county, Colby and other community members are taking a stand to counter the trend.

Colby and one of his past clients, Melissa Latham, are starting Blue Water Families Against Narcotics, a grassroots group that provides support, education and resource information to addicts, their families and the community affected by the trend.

“We need to deal with this problem as a community, suffer through the problem as a community, and heal as a community,” Latham said.

Blue Water Families Against Narcotics will have its first meeting at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at Colonial Woods Missionary Church in Port Huron.

Heroin claimed the lives of 13 people in St. Clair County in 2013 - 10 more than 2012, according to the St. Clair County Medical Examiner’s office.

The St. Clair County Drug Task Force seized 224.5 grams of heroin in 2012 and 148 grams in 2013. In 2006, the agency seized 2.5 grams.

Heroin arrests by the drug task force increased from five in 2008 to 63 in 2013.

The drug task force seized nine prescription pills in 2006. The unit seized 1,093 in 2011, 671 in 2012, and 380 in 2013.

St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon said prescription opiate and heroin abuse problems have outstripped crack cocaine, which historically had been a bigger issue in St. Clair County. He said marijuana and methamphetamine usage also seems to have increased.

“The issue that we’re seeing with opiate-based prescriptions is in direct correlation with the heroin spike, which is unprecedented,” Donnellon said.

“We take a lot of pills off the street. Very rarely are they prescribed.”

The court system also has been busy handling cases either directly related to substance abuse, or stemming from substance abuse.

St. Clair County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Wendling has said the number of prosecuted cases involving 25 grams of cocaine, heroin, or schedule 1, 2 or 3 narcotics has grown - from 52 counts in 2010 to 87 counts in 2013.

“There is a huge, huge drug problem in St. Clair County, which I see all day, every day and something needs to be done,” said St. Clair County District Judge Cynthia Platzer.

“Most people don’t really understand how much of a drug problem there is in our community. It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge.”

Platzer, Donnellon, Wendling, Port Huron Department of Public Safety Director Michael Reaves and St. Clair County Commissioner Tom Riley are on the advisory board for FAN.

Platzer said the group might be able to help the community do something about the epidemic.

“The people starting this have been there, done that,” Platzer said. “They lend a completely different perspective on how to beat this insidious evil facing this community.

“These are people who have battled addiction for years and beat it.”

Sixty-seven-year-old Howard Colby, a pastor at Colonial Woods Missionary Church, started doing black Turkish hash during the Vietnam War.

He graduated to acids and hallucinogenic drugs, and eventually started doing cocaine. He sold the drug to friends to finance his habit.

“All of a sudden, I’m doing it because I have to,” Colby said. “After 18 years, it was bringing me to my knees … It was slowly killing me, but as time went on, it got faster.

“The last two years of my addiction, I didn’t have two days where I wasn’t high.”

Colby said his faith and a firm determination to turn his life around eventually saved him.

“I feel so grateful that I got away from it,” Colby said. “No human being was born and got up and said, ‘I want to be an addict.’”

As difficult as those 18 years of addiction were, they gave him a unique perspective on addiction. Colby has spent the past 28 years counseling addicts, including Melissa Latham.

The 34-year-old Port Huron woman, a therapist at Sacred Heart Rehabilitation in Memphis, said she started experimenting with marijuana and alcohol at 14.

In her early 20s, while in college, Latham started doing cocaine.

“It wasn’t long before it became my best friend,” Latham said.

It was another “friend” who suggested Latham resolve her reliance on cocaine by doing heroin. She used the drug for three years.

“The first time I injected, I overdosed,” Latham said. “My family did everything they could do to help me.”

Latham said years passed before she reached a crossroads and decided to dump her habit.

“In just a matter of a couple years, I’d built a life around maintaining that addiction,” Latham said.

She went back to school and obtained her degree in counseling. She attended her first Families Against Narcotics group in 2007 in Macomb County.

“It started out with 10 or 12 people expressing a concern for the heroin epidemic … and the number of people that were dying, young people,” Latham said. “I watched FAN grow.”

She said she also saw dozens of families share their stories of addiction, hurt and loss.

About a year and a half ago, she felt a calling.

“It’s time to do something in my hometown,” Latham said. “It’s time to actually stand up and get the community together to fight this ongoing problem.”

Families Against Narcotics started in Fraser in 2007 after two teens died from heroin overdoses just weeks apart, said Macomb County District Judge Linda Davis, president of Families Against Narcotics.

She said families gathered in the basement of a church and started talking about the deaths.

“We didn’t realize how big the problem was until we got together to talk about it,” Davis said.

The group has spread to at least eight other communities since then. Davis estimated about 2,000 people have been in and out of the meetings since 2007.

“It really brings to the forefront something that everybody faces in one way or another in their family,” Davis said.

“Once those barriers are broken and people start talking about it, the stigma surrounding addiction goes away because it’s the kid next door that’s being affected by this.”

Davis said FAN acts as a support system and education tool for the community. She said people share their stories at the meetings, speakers educate people about opiate addiction, and the message is taken into schools and community groups.

“There are so many different facets of this problem, and FAN takes them all on,” Davis said. “Until we tackle it at all levels, it’s not going to get any better.”

Blue Water Families Against Narcotics will have meetings once a month at Colonial Woods Missionary Church in Port Huron.

The meetings will include support sessions as well as speakers from the medical field, the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement. The meetings will help families and addicts find ways to help themselves, Colby said.

The group focuses on prescription opiates and heroin.

“That’s where the crisis is in Port Huron and many other communities,” Colby said.

Colby said prescription opiate and heroin use is a crisis that affects many people within the community, regardless of age, race or background.

“It hooks them, it gets them, and it’s just so hard to kick that,” Colby said.

“These are good people - some of them are just trying to fill a gap in their life.”

The effects of the prescription opiate and heroin epidemic go beyond the individual addict, officials say.

Reaves said the substance abuse issue affects the wider community, as the problem leads to break-ins, robberies and assaults.

“When you have a substance-abuse or heroin-abuse problem in the community, a lot of these other crimes are fueled by it,” Reaves said.

Platzer agreed.

“Families are being torn apart, they’re being stolen from, they’re being brutalized because someone needs a fix,” she said.

Reaves said law enforcement is doing its best to handle the fallout of the widespread addiction.

“We’re doing as much as we can to slow or eliminate those that are obvious from a law enforcement perspective,” Reaves said. “I want to partner with groups like FAN to help provide alternatives and assistance to families that are helping a substance abuser.”

Donnellon said programs in jail, like the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program, help to address some of the addictions in the community.

He said the program has an 82 percent to 86 percent success rate, meaning those who complete the program do not re-violate within 12 months of release. Successful completion of the program often means a shorter jail term for inmates.

“The mechanisms are in place once you’re incarcerated, because obviously you’re not getting any more,” Donnellon said. “It’s a much more challenging issue when you’re out on the street.”

He said, ideally, addictions would be addressed in the family or in the community before someone is facing jail time for their habit.

“We’re the last stop,” Donnellon said. “Either you get straight here, or the next stop will be prison or death.”

___

Information from: Times Herald, https://www.thetimesherald.com


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