Police lead charge against opioid, heroin boom

Duncan MacLean • Aug 25, 2017 at 10:00 AM

At the forefront of the rapidly rising opioid activity in Ottawa and surrounding counties lies local law enforcement.

Charged with responding to related incidents, aiding those affected and putting a stop to the trafficking of deadly drugs, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office has had to adapt to a quickly changing landscape. 

“There is a definite uptick across the entire county,“ Sheriff Steve Kempker said. “It is almost to the point, some people are saying, of epidemic level. It is a whole different world out there.”

Kempker reported that, in 2015, 14 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Ottawa County. In 2016, that number rose to 26, marking an 85.7 percent increase in just one year. Those numbers show no signs of slowing down.

The widespread use of opioids makes it a difficult and perplexing drug boom.

“We are seeing it used at all socio-economic levels, which is scary,” Kempker said. “It isn’t uncommon for us to arrest someone who has a history, or multiple related arrests, and a business person for the same drug. It is becoming very prominent.”

With opioid abuse rising across the board in the county, the sheriff’s department has had to shift its approach to dealing with the problem.

“The overdoses are the most common calls for us, and we respond to all of them,” Kempker said. “First and foremost, we make sure no one dies.”

Ottawa County deputies are now equipped with Narcan, a nasal-spray version of the prescription drug Nolaxone. The spray works against the effects of narcotics, effectively reversing opioid overdoses.

“Before, it was only EMS personnel who carried it,” Kempker said. “We would have a lot more deaths in the streets if our officers weren’t carrying it.”

After responding to the specific overdose, the next step is finding where these drugs are coming from. In the case of opioids, it is, unfortunately, close to home.

“It comes down to what you have in your medicine cabinet, or what you throw away,” Kempker said.

Most prescription painkillers, such as oxycontin, are opioids, making them easily accessible to a wide range of people.

“It is not uncommon for people surrounding the overdose cases to find that they are missing pills,” Kempker said. “Family, friends and kids that come through your house can get their hands on them.”

Far-reaching consequences have been seen in Ottawa and surrounding counties. Opioids serve as a natural gateway to heroin use. Once someone is hooked on opioids, heroin serves as a cheaper, more effective and more readily available alternative.

WEMET — the West Michigan Enforcement Team — heads up the fight against drug trafficking as a multi-jurisdiction narcotic task force, covering Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties.

“It has definitely taken over,” Lt. Andy Fias of the Michigan State Police and commander of WEMET said of opioid traffic. “It is our No. 1 priority in all three counties. I would venture to say that we have more people in Ottawa County suffering from opioid abuse than heroin. The problem we are seeing is when someone is hooked on those prescriptions and their doctor cuts them off, they are still suffering and turn to heroin.

“There is a pretty good black market for those prescriptions, but they are expensive,” the detective added. “Twenty dollars for a quarter-gram of heroin will get you incredibly high in the same way the opioids do, compared to paying $40 for a 40-milligram oxycontin pill. The difference attracts people.”

WEMET officers have had their hands full with heroin cases over the course of the opioid boom.

In 2009, WEMET investigated 298 complaints in Ottawa County; only eight of which were related to heroin. In 2016, they took on 216 complaints in the county; 32 of which were related to heroin. Through March 2 of this year, WEMET handled 50 Ottawa County cases, with 18 related to heroin.

According to Fias, the numbers in Ottawa County are closely following the more advanced trends in Muskegon County.

“We are seeing Ottawa numbers about three years behind Muskegon’s, and following the same percentages,” he said.

WEMET takes on these complicated drug investigations by starting at the bottom, often with opioid investigations, and working their way to the top, to far-flung operations.

“When the road officer gets an overdose and the subject is willing to talk to us, we will send a detective out to try and find out if it was a bad batch, or a new opioid, or where they acquired the drugs in the first place,” Fias explained. “We then target the source and who is trafficking it. We are always looking for the big fish. We climb the ladder to find the person behind it, and we do a very good job of that from undercover purchases of heroin to communicating with users.

“It all stems from a pretty incredible opioid problem here in West Michigan that we have had for many years,” the WEMET commander continued. “Most of the heroin in Ottawa County comes in from Muskegon, where there is a better supply and more demand for it, with a little out of Chicago and Detroit. People come over the bridge into Muskegon to shoot up, and meet up in the Grand Haven and Spring Lake areas to sell it.

“We have several cases that have Mexican cartel connections,” he added.

The combined effort of Ottawa County uniformed officers and the undercover and investigative work of WEMET is the front line in the fight against opioid and heroin activity in Ottawa County, but the defense can start at home. Improper disposal or storage of opioid prescription drugs allows them to spread into the community.

“We are working very strongly on the enforcement end with our drug teams, with a goal to knock out as much of it as we can,” Kempker said. “Opioids are very addicting (and) long-term use usually leads to death. If you have a drug problem, seek help.”


Recovery resources

Community Mental Health

Community Mental Health of Ottawa County works with several agencies to provide substance use disorder services to people who have Medicaid or are uninsured. If someone is seeking treatment for substance abuse, CMH encourages them to go right to their health care provider before contacting them. However, CMH may be contacted directly for help, said Anna Bednarek, the program and community development coordinator for CMH of Ottawa County.


Overdose prevention and response training is being offered by the Grand Rapids R&D Project at CMH of Ottawa County, 12265 James St. on Holland’s north side. Training is offered on a drop-in basis from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second Friday of each month. The next date is Sept. 8. It is free to the community and takes about 20 minutes. To learn more, visit www.redproject.org or call 616-294-8370.


Ottagan Addictions Recovery (O.A.R.) has offices in Grand Haven (700 Washington Ave., Suite 220; 616-842-6710) and Holland (483 Century Lane; 616-395-5284). According to the agency’s website (oar-inc.org) O.A.R. is one of the few organizations on the Lakeshore that specialize in addiction. They provide personalized treatment; group and one-on-one support; and education for individuals, families and communities. They also say everyone has access to the same specialized care, and their fees are based on what you can pay.

Other resources

Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services has a North Shore Clinic at 17325 Van Wagoner Road, Spring Lake (866-852-4001, pinerest.org/services/addiction-services).

Dan Qualls, the former director of TCM, offers recovery counseling and therapy in a private practice at 923 S. Beechtree St., Grand Haven (616-935-1246, qualls-consulting.org).

Mercy Health Life Counseling includes substance abuse treatment. They accept walk-in patients at 125 E. Southern Ave., Muskegon; and near The Lakes Mall at 6401 Prairie St., Norton Shores (231-726-3582, mercyhealthmuskegon.com).


In an emergency, go to North Ottawa Community Hospital’s emergency room at 1309 Sheldon Road, Grand Haven, or call 911.

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