Michigan’s Opiate Crisis—A Grim Story from the Great Lakes State

Michigan city and lake

When people think of the Great Lakes State, they think of the beautiful lakes. With massive bodies of freshwater in almost every compass direction, no one in Michigan is ever more than 100 miles away from one of the fantastic Great Lakes. Add that to a diverse combination of urban regions and wild rural areas, and Michigan brings a special kind of beauty and joy to both those who live there and those who visit seasonally.

However, Michigan has its own, crippling problem that some might not even know about. Underneath the veil of a beautiful state that’s been voted one of America's top places to visit, Michigan also has one of the worst drug problems not only in the Midwest but in the entire nation.

In a revealing report, it was found that Michigan has the second-worst drug problem in the nation, second only to Washington D.C. Researchers examined each of the 50 states and D.C. and assessed each against 22 drug-related metrics. Michigan came in with pretty shocking results across each metric, with the state’s opiate problem being at the forefront of local addiction problems. What is the story behind Michigan’s addiction crisis, and what can be done to address it?

Michigan’s Unique Opiate Epidemic—A Look at the Numbers

There’s no doubt that the beautiful Great Lakes State has been ravaged by the 21st-century opiate crisis, as evidenced simply by the number of people who have died from overdoses. In 2017, 2,033 people in Michigan lost their lives to opiates, a rate of more than 21 deaths per 100,000 persons. When compared to the national average of 14 deaths for every 100,000 persons, it becomes clear that Michigan’s drug problem is not only widespread but that it’s also a fatal crisis for over 2,000 people each year.

Like many states, the problem in Michigan is further exacerbated by the fact that it’s not just one type of opiate that is causing these deaths. In 2012, 72 Michigan residents died from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, but that number increased to 1,368 synthetic opioid deaths in 2017. Deaths from heroin also went up, from 263 fatalities in 2012 to 783 lives lost in 2017. Prescription painkiller deaths also increased dramatically.

With regard to the prescription painkiller deaths, during most of the 2010s, Michigan medical providers were writing the equivalent of one opioid prescription for each person in the state. With a population of nearly 10 million people, that means millions of prescriptions for highly addictive drugs were being written every year. Such extreme prescribing levels account for part of Michigan’s drug problem.

Paramedic equipment on the road

At this point, more people die in Michigan from drug overdoses than from gun deaths and traffic fatalities. It’s not very common for a state’s traffic and gun-related fatalities to be overtaken by drug overdoses. And from that same report, from 1999 to 2016, Michigan saw a 17X increase in opioid overdose deaths.

By now, Michigan legislators and public health officials are very aware of the drug problems faced by their state. Health groups such as the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation, the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Superior Health Foundation, and leaders such as the state’s governor are now working to address the crisis.

Quoting Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who launched an initiative in 2019 to combat the problem: “Opioid overdoses and deaths have hurt families all over Michigan. The number of annual opioid-related overdose deaths in the state has more than tripled since 2011, with 2,053 opioid overdoses in 2017 alone. If we’re going to tackle the opioid crisis and get Michigan families on track to recovery, we need to build strong partnerships between state government, philanthropy, and the medical community.”

Reasons Why Michigan Scored so High in the Wallethub Assessment

Drug dealing teenagers

The Wallethub report mentioned earlier ranked Michigan at second place in the country by using 22 key metrics to analyze each state’s drug problem. These metrics included factors such as:

  • The number of drug-related arrests per capita.
  • The number of overdoses per capita.
  • The number of opioid prescriptions per capita.
  • The regularity (or lack thereof) of employee drug testing.
  • The share of teenagers who use drugs.
  • The number of clandestine drug labs within the state.
  • The presence (or lack thereof) of prescription drug monitoring programs.
  • Access (or lack thereof) to qualified drug treatment.
  • The share of adults per capita who could not get into treatment centers.

In all of these metrics and many others, Michigan scored higher than the other states. And therein lies the challenge of making real change come about in Michigan. Reversing the drug problem in this state is going to mean carefully addressing each of those issues. There is not going to be a cure-all, one solution that addresses all of Michigan's drug-related problems.

Seeking Addiction Treatment in Michigan

Unfortunately, although public health officials, health groups, state departments, and the state’s governor are working hard to combat Michigan’s drug epidemic, the problem in the Great Lakes State has gotten so out of control that only a combination of efforts by both the above-listed institutions and state-wide action by the state’s residents will be enough to effectively curb the problem.

That means each person in Michigan who has a family member or loved one who uses drugs needs to do their best to help their loved one get clean. And the best way to do that is with the help of a residential drug treatment center. Residential drug rehabs offer the safest and most reliable path off of drugs. If you know someone in Michigan who needs help with a drug problem, make sure they get into a treatment center as soon as possible. Remember, hundreds of people die from drug-related causes in Michigan every year. Addiction is a life or death matter. Please get your loved one help today.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.