Inside Georgia's Opioid Crisis

Credit Jessica Gurell / GPB

Although it has not yet been declared an official emergency by the federal government, the opioid epidemic continues across the country. Georgia is no exception. Health care providers, law enforcement, and government officials continue to attempt to adapt. While new laws and procedures are being introduced to help address the abuse of prescription drugs as well as heroin and other opiate-based drugs, new threats such as fetanyl continue to complicate an already complex public health calamity.

From a long-running needle exchange program in the heart of Atlanta to methadone clinics in Northwest Georgia that cater to out-of-state patients to the lobbyists working for the pharmaceutical industry inside the Capitol, in this multi-part series, GPB News goes inside Georgia's opioid crisis. 

Jessica Gurell / GPB

Every day in the United States 91 people die of opioid overdose. That includes prescription opiates and heroin. Over a year, that’s more than ten times the number of people who died on 9/11. On today’s “On Second Thought,” we’re going to hear from some of the people struggling with addiction, those who offer help, and communities caught in the middle.

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Getting opioids can be very easy.  Getting rid of them can be very hard. There’s a lot at stake here.  Failure to do dispose of opioids can impacts lives, families, careers­–even the environment.

“These things shouldn’t be treated any differently than a loaded gun that’s sitting around the house,” said Dr. William Jacobs. 

He was a respected anesthesiologist with a successful practice and an idyllic family life but then he succumbed to temptation.

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Georgia is a major distribution hub for everything from food and cars to raw materials like cotton and turpentine. And, increasingly, illegal drugs, including opioids. The interstates and port that attract big business to the state also attracts drug traffickers. 

Dan Salter is the special agent in charge of the Atlanta field office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He says that right now they're particularly concerned about fake Percocet pills that caused a spike of recent overdoses in Georgia and across the country.

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Dr. James Black wants opiate drug seekers to know not to look in his emergency room.

“You know, we're not going to be easy prey, so to speak, for people with repeated usage,” Black said. Black is the director of emergency medicine at the Phobe Putney Medical Center in Albany.

In the context of national trends, Southwest Georgia doesn’t have it as bad as other places. Opiate use is in decline here, but Black said he has seen his fair share of overdoses.

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The push for medical amnesty all started with a group of parents who lost children to drug overdose.

Robin Elliott was one of them.

 

“My son Zach was a private school student in Buckhead,” she said. “He was a beautiful, bright talented kid and he also used heroin.”

 

 

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Lisa Kidd knows the drill. She flashes her identification card without needing to be prompted and has her lockbox open, ready to go. This is what she’s up to every fourth Tuesday of the month: picking up her methadone prescription at Counseling Solutions Treatment Center in Chatsworth, Georgia.

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Tucked away in northeast Georgia, Stephens County has rolling green hills, about 26,000 people…and a problem.

Job postings have gone unfilled for months as prospective employees haven’t been able to pass drug tests.

But it’s not the usual suspects like cocaine or marijuana putting an economic damper on the northeast Georgia community – it’s illegal use of prescription opioids.

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It’s was a slow Thursday morning at Optim Medical Center-Screven in Sylvania, a small town about 60 miles northwest of Savannah.

Only a handful of patients had come into the emergency room in the past few hours.

“Like in any ER, it’s feast or famine: you’re going to have a great day or either you’re going have a very busy day,” said Tina Hood, a physician's assistant who works at the hospital.

Jessica Gurell / GPB

Opioids are a $10 billion industry for pharmaceutical companies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 persons died from overdose related to opioid pain medication in the United States. Today, thousands more are struggling with drug dependency that started with opioids given to them by doctors.

Opioids By The Numbers

Aug 28, 2017
Jessica Gurell / GPB

According to the CDC, the amount of opioid painkillers peaked in 2010, but as of 2015, the prescribing rate remained three times as high as in 1999, when the nation’s problem with opioid addiction was just getting started.

Although it has not yet been declared an official emergency by the federal government, the opioid epidemic continues across the country. Georgia is no exception. There are 0.77 prescriptions for every person in Georgia. 

Jessica Gurell / GPB

Imagine that you haven't eaten in several days. What would you be thinking about? Most likely, food would be on your mind!

The craving for sustenance that you would feel is actually the brain’s mechanism that drives you to survive

That's how many people describe what its like to be addicted to opiates.

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On a recent sweltering afternoon, Jeremy stood on a street corner in Atlanta, remembering how his relationship with opioids started.

“I was stealing pain pills from my dad’s prescription jar: Percocet, Lortab, Oxycodone,” he said. “I had to have them before I went to work. I couldn’t work without them.”

 

 

Jessica Gurell / GPB

Drugs like fentanyl aren’t just creating new risks for human police officers. The dogs who use their powerful noses to sniff out drugs are inhaling the dangerous synthetic opioids as well. So police departments are taking new steps to protect their dogs – and respond if the K-9s get sick.

Normally, it’s a police dog’s job to protect its handler, not the other way around. If you’re a police dog and somebody runs at your human waving a weapon, there’s only one response: you attack.

 

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New Jersey police detective Eric Price came in contact with fentanyl while doing his job.

“I felt like my body was shutting down,” Price said. “People around me said that I looked really white and lost color, and it just really felt like, I thought I was dying.”