A national organization dedicated to battling the country’s opioid crisis is bringing its fight to Michigan – with a Traverse City resident co-chairing the new state chapter.
James Surprenant is the new co-chair of the Michigan chapter of Addiction Policy Forum (APF), a national substance abuse nonprofit that works to “elevate awareness around addiction” and help drive legislative changes and criminal justice system reforms. APF announced the launch of its Michigan chapter at a public event at the Elks Lodge in Traverse City Tuesday. According to the nonprofit, “the Michigan chapter will work on education, prevention, treatment, recovery, overdose reversal, and criminal justice issues to ensure the full spectrum of solutions (to address addiction) is being deployed.”
For Surprenant and many others – including fellow co-chair Richard Fox, a Dryden resident – the fight against addiction is personal. “Alcohol (addiction) runs through our family, and I had a nephew down in the Detroit area who became addicted to opioids,” Surprenant says. “He ended up taking a fatal shot in a hotel room. They found him with a needle in his arm.”
Surprenant’s story is tragically all too common among Michigan families. From 1999 to 2016, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids increased more than 17 times in the state, from 99 to 1,699. According to the Michigan Automated Prescription System, 11.4 million prescriptions were written for painkillers in 2015 – approximately 115 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. And in 2016, more people died of drug overdoses in the state than car accidents, with 2,356 deaths reported. That number surged to 2,662 deaths last year – more than traffic and gun fatalities combined.
Surprenant was already working on the front line in addressing the opioid crisis when he volunteered to help APF launch its Michigan chapter. He and Fox previously worked as co-founders of the Save a Life Project Foundation, an organization that travels to schools across the country providing education on drug abuse and bullying. The duo has also advocated for the use of Safer Lock, a combination locking prescription bottle that prevents children and teens from accessing prescription drug medications. They hope to continue making the bottles widely available as part of APF’s outreach in the state.
“Only three percent of families lock up their opioids,” Surprenant explains. “These are very addictive pills, and they lead to other drugs that are worse, like heroin. It would be just like leaving a gun out on your dining room table.”
Surprenant also serves as the Drug Awareness Director for the Traverse City Elks Lodge, providing information and resources to members looking for help for themselves or loved ones fighting addiction. Surprenant and APF plan to hold monthly meetings at the Elks Lodge open to the community about issues related to addiction. The first event is scheduled for September 18 at 6pm and will train attendees how to use Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug. Naloxone kits have been used by the Traverse City Police Department and Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office to prevent numerous overdose deaths, and are available to community members through agencies like Addiction Treatment Services.
APF will also be producing videos on addiction that will be shown at schools throughout Michigan and the rest of the country, and will be active in advocating for expanded treatment access and recovery support in the healthcare system. The group also hopes to increase funding for prevention programs and addiction research, and to lobby to “re-envision how the criminal justice system responds to addiction.” Surprenant says a significant part of the organization’s work is focused on eliminating the stigma around addiction. “One out of seven of us will become addicted to something,” he says. “We need to eliminate the stigma around drug addiction…because this is a disease.”
In conjunction with the launch of the Michigan APF chapter, the organization’s Addiction Resource Center – which acts as an “unbiased resource for people impacted by substance use disorders” – is adding a new Michigan treatment database to its website. The database is scheduled to go live September 10. The database will help residents in all 83 Michigan counties find professionals and organizations in their communities who specialize in addiction treatment. When Surprenant joined over 400 families who testified with APF in front of Congress in Washington D.C. about loved ones lost to addiction, a common refrain among the families was “they didn’t know want to do when a family member was afflicted with addiction,” he says.
“That’s the biggest thing – when people have a problem, they don’t know where to go,” Surprenant says. “We’re looking to provide a template and tools to each of the 83 counties so everyone – from the mayor to the hospitals – has that information.” Surprenant says APF’s goal is to make details on prevention, intervention, and recovery resources widely accessible in every community in Michigan.
“This is a disease that can be addressed with the proper tools and programs,” he says. “We want to help people know where to go, how to get help, and how to be able to pay for it.”