These bins once held newspapers. Now they hold Narcan — and hope.

Jerry Norris with a repurposed newspaper bin filled with boxes of Narcan outside The Fledge in Lansing.| Photo by Anna Gustafson

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

The path leading to the front porch of The Fledge, a community organization that works to empower disenfranchised residents in Lansing, is one flanked by apple and peach trees that anyone is welcome to pick from, meandering chickens and a mural emblazoned with the words, “You can’t put a band-aid on climate change.”

Walking up the steps to the imposing columns in front of a towering white building built in the 1920s, visitors arrive at an entrance where, for the past eight months, there is a metal bin that, once upon a time, held newspapers. Now, in a building not far from Sparrow Hospital, it holds rows of Narcan, a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses.

“It’s accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week — the last person to take one was about 30 minutes ago,” Jerry Norris, the founder of The Fledge, said Tuesday morning.

Since The Fledge began offering the free Narcan about eight months ago, Norris has witnessed an increased demand for the spray that’s helping to address an opioid epidemic that in 2022 killed close to 83,000 people in the United States and at least 2,532 people in Michigan. 

“It’s definitely going up,” Norris said of the number of people coming to his organization for the Narcan spray. “We have more available to us, and more people are taking it. I think that’s because of awareness and breaking down the stigma.”

On Monday night, Norris and his team stocked the former newspaper stand with 50 boxes of the nasal spray – both the newspaper bin and the nasal spray come from a Traverse City-based nonprofit called Harm Reduction Michigan

By Tuesday morning, there were 20 left. 

“The typical person that is coming to the box is, one, a concerned friend or family member who wants to have it because they know their loved one is using, or, two, people who know that even if there’s fentanyl in their heroin, they’re still going to use it and they want that Narcan there in case they overdose,” Norris said.

Once a fairly obscure drug used to treat pain in cancer patients, fentanyl has now become a leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50 — including children

Fentanyl — a highly addictive synthetic opioid that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes as 50 times more powerful than heroin — and other synthetic opioids lead to about 190 fatal overdoses each day in the United States, according to federal data. While fentanyl can be legally prescribed, illicit versions of it have exploded in the U.S. over the past five years.

For Norris, the rise in those coming to his organization for help is a hopeful sign in many ways: More people, he explained, feel comfortable accessing a spray that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015 approved as a prescription drug and in May approved for over-the-counter sales.

Still, he also knows it means people are struggling, that families are deeply hurting in the wake of addiction, that an opioid epidemic that began in the 1990s has killed about 932,000 people — including his daughter, Daniella, who died on June 18, 2017, after she “crushed up a fentanyl pill and snorted it,” Norris said. Daniella was 29 when she died; she left behind four children — one of whom now lives with Norris and three of whom live with another family member.

“I took her off life support six years ago, on Father’s Day,” Norris recalled.

His daughter’s death “radicalized” Norris, he said — and now he’s determined to both connect people with needed resources, like Narcan, and educate the public about addiction and how to address it. For Norris, that includes decriminalizing drug use in order to allow people suffering from addiction to receive the help they need.

“I’ve been an advocate [for making Narcan more accessible] for a long time because of the work I do, and, most importantly, because I watched my daughter die,” said Norris, whose daughter first became addicted to opioids in 2012.

“It’s not something you’d wish upon anyone,” he said.

There are levels of desperation. I had a horrible time. I always think about how lucky I am compared to people dying or families being torn apart.

– Jamie Lowell, who struggled with opioid addiction and now works to connect people with Narcan

Addiction, Norris said, needs to be treated with far more empathy from policymakers and the general public than it currently receives. Only then, when people who are addicts are seen not as criminals but as humans worthy of love and help, will the country be able to truly move away from its opioid epidemic, he said.

“We treat them as criminals,” Norris said of people dealing with addiction. “It becomes harder and harder to get your basic needs met. You’ve got probation; you’re spending money on a drug test instead of getting a job or getting treatment. A lot of people believe these are criminals; they deserve this. People look at a drug user as this scumbag who’s doing it to themselves and screw them.

“One of the big causes of opioid addiction is shoulder, knee, hip replacement surgery,” Norris continued, referring to the opioids that patients can be prescribed for pain management. “Just because an obituary doesn’t say grandma died of an overdose doesn’t mean she didn’t. There are people dying silently from this because of the stigma.”

The people who are dying from overdoses, Norris said, are “mothers and daughters and uncles and cousins. To look at them as a second-class citizen — shame on you.”

Across Michigan, repurposed newspaper bins

The Fledge’s Narcan-filled stand is one of nearly 100 similarly repurposed newspaper boxes in 28 Michigan counties, said Pam Lynch, the director of Harm Reduction Michigan. 

The nonprofit — which has been involved in overdose prevention since 1999 and has for a little more than two decades distributed free naloxone, the generic version of Narcan — launched its news stand initiative a little more than one year ago, in May 2022.

Those efforts, Lynch explained, were borne from a distressing phone call Lynch received from a mother whose child had overdosed.

“I got a call in May 2022 from a mother in Macomb County,” Lynch said. “They’ve had huge overdose problems there. It was a Wednesday night, 9 o’clock at night, and she had a son who’d overdosed. She reversed him with Narcan but didn’t have any more and she was sure he had more heroin hidden in the house.

“She was terrified he was going to use it and that she wouldn’t be able to reverse it because she didn’t have Narcan,” Lynch continued. “I was thinking, ‘How do I help this lady?’” 

At that point, Harm Reduction Michigan had vending machines filled with Narcan around the state — but there were none close to the woman who called Lynch. Heavy and bulky, the vending machines were difficult to easily transport to the places that needed them.

“It became apparent we needed a lot more of these vending machines all over the place,” Lynch said.

Not long after that, the idea for repurposing newspaper boxes came about and “sounded a lot cheaper” than the vending machines, the nonprofit leader said.

“It sounded like a win-win situation since newspapers aren’t selling like they used to,” Lynch said.

Now, using Narcan the nonprofit receives for free through the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Harm Reduction Michigan has continued to increase the amount of nasal spray it distributes to sites across the state. Those locations include recovery groups, food pantries, domestic violence shelters, dispensaries and bars, among others.

Jamie Lowell, the head of operations at MedsCafe, a chain of dispensaries in Michigan, said his business currently offers the Narcan-filled newspaper stands outside their locations in Manistee, Rogers City and Alpena. Soon, they’ll also offer them in Cheboygan and Ann Arbor.

“They’re needed everywhere,” said Lowell, a Ferndale resident who, years ago, faced an alcohol and opioid addiction. 

That opioid addiction, Lowell said, began when he was prescribed painkillers following a knee surgery. 

“There are levels of desperation,” he said of opioid addiction. “I had a horrible time. I always think about how lucky I am compared to people dying or families being torn apart.”

With support from his wife and others, Lowell was able to leave opiates behind in 2008 — but that experience left the longtime cannabis advocate inspired to help others who are struggling with addiction.

“I got in trouble one night with the police when I had a bunch of them on me,” Lowell said, referring to opiates. “That was a wakeup call. These substances were contributing to taking me out of any pattern of life that’s functional.”

Overdoses drop in Michigan

Five years ago, Michigan was in the top 15 states for the highest rates of drug overdoses. Now, it’s below the national average, said Jared Welehodsky, who oversees the state DHHS’ opioids strategy.

“We’ve beat the national trend,” Welehodsky said of the overdose deaths that plateaued nationally in 2022. “Every state is dealing with fentanyl, but we’ve been able to beat the national trend. We believe harm reduction is one of the key reasons why.”

Harm reduction refers to public health policies designed to directly help people dealing with addiction — such as providing Narcan to those who are struggling.

In 2021, there were 3,096 people who died from drug overdoses in Michigan. From January 2022 through November 2022, the most recent statistics available from the state, overdose deaths dropped to 2,532. While that number is expected to increase as the state combes through death data, it’s expected to remain below the 2021 number – a decrease that Welehodsky attributes in part to DHHS increasing its Narcan distribution throughout the state. 

Beginning in 2020, the DHHS launched what it calls its “Narcan direct portal,” which allows any nonprofit in the state to order the overdose-reversing nasal spray through DHHS. 

Lynch, for example, receives Narcan through this portal and then can distribute it to the various sites with which she partners. DHHS, which for years prior to the portal had distributed free naloxone, is able to pay for the nasal spray with federal grants and opioid settlement dollars.

I’ve been an advocate (for making Narcan more accessible) for a long time because of the work I do, and, most importantly, because I watched my daughter die. It’s not something you’d wish upon anyone.

– Jerry Norris, founder of The Fledge in Lansing

Since January 2020, DHHS has distributed 400,000 Narcan kits, and expects to continue to give out more, Welehodsky said. 

“We still see a strong demand for Narcan,” Welehodsky said. “We know at some point we’ll reach a saturation point where we feel that we won’t continue to grow, but we’re not there yet.”

While DHHS officials are hoping the state is on the precipice of a significant turnaround on overdose deaths, Welehodsky also emphasizes that “Michigan is dealing with the same struggles that everyone in the country is.”

“There have been changes to the drug supply that make drugs more dangerous — like fentanyl in the heroin supply and now fentanyl in any illicit drug,” he said. “Anyone who uses illicit substances should have naloxone.”

To further combat drug overdoses, Welehodsky said the state has focused on growing its harm reduction organizations, like Harm Reduction Michigan. Those groups numbered at about five in 2018 – now, there’s about 40.

“These are groups that work with people using drugs; those people who are most at risk of overdose can now have access to naloxone,” Welehodsky said.

DHHS has also worked to lower drug overdoses through its launch of Healthy Michigan, a health insurance plan that further expanded Medicaid coverage to state residents.

“Since then, we’ve focused on removing barriers to treatment access,” said Welehodsky, who added the state has also worked to increase efforts to increase the number of doctors interested in treating addiction in Michigan.

Advocates praise these efforts and hope that they lead to further destigmatizing people who suffer from addiction. Ultimately, Lynch said, “what we need in this country to turn around this opioid epidemic is to separate the disease of addiction from the criminal justice system.” 

Currently, Lynch explained, people facing addiction still hesitate to reach out for help out of fear that they’ll end up in the criminal justice system. That hesitation, she said, is killing people. 

Norris agreed. 

“At the policy level, the best thing that could be done is to decriminalize these drugs,” he said and added there also needs to be an expansion of mental health resources, substance use and recovery systems, and support for citizens returning from prison.

“You’ve got all these ill people in prison; they get out of prison and they can’t get a job, they can’t get housing; that makes their suffering go up,” Norris said. “Why does anyone get high? It’s all to make yourself feel better and give yourself relief from those problems. 

Someday, Norris said, he hopes a growth in empathy for people who are in pain translates to a world in which parents will never have to lose a child to an overdose. 

No one, he said, should have to spend Father’s Day taking their daughter off life support. 

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.