25 Jun Drug Crisis in Atlanta’s Suburbs
What would you guess is the #1 cause of death for Americans aged 35 and under? In other words, what is the most likely to kill our what-should-be healthiest demographic? Perhaps you’d guess cancer. Maybe car crashes. Violent crime, even. Heart disease. If these are your guess, then you’re on the right track because these are all major deterrents of life. Yet, it may shock you to learn that drug overdose is now the number one cause of death for our youthful demographic.
America, we have a problem.
While drug use has been a staple of American culture since the birth of our country, the issue is that the types of drugs at the forefront of the current fad are more harmful and dangerous than ever before. It’s not necessarily that we’re—as a whole—abusing more and more drugs, it’s the kind in which users are becoming addicted to. What we speak of, of course, is the opioid epidemic.
In the last two decades the rate in which doctors prescribe opioids has quadrupled. The deaths related to painkillers scaled accordingly, leaving us with the harrowing fact that 33,000 Americans lost their lives to opioid-related overdose in 2016 alone. Currently, over $50 billion dollars is spent annually on opioid abuse and nearly 100 Americans die each day at the hands of painkillers.
Being that opioids are somewhat of a gateway to harder drugs, particularly heroin, as the rise of addicts continues to soar, so too does unrelated drug use. Drugs beget other drugs. It’s the way it has always been. Now—in accordance with this article—what often spurs drug use? Poverty. Bad environments. Ignorance. But how about one of the subtlest evils of all… boredom.
Atlanta and its Suburbs
Georgia as a state is no novice to drug use. From alcohol abuse, heroin, cocaine, and all other illicit substances in circulation, they’ve been a state dramatically impacted by the drug epidemic. Being that they’re an optimal trafficking zone (sitting directly in the middle of Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas), cartels use Atlanta and the entire state as a drug hub for their mules. Heroin and cocaine are the two biggest exports, with opioids now part of the cargo. Only a few months ago a traffic stop exploited two undocumented cartel workers in their pursuit to smuggle $2.2 million dollars’ worth of heroin into Atlanta.
When it comes to fatalities, in 2016 there were 1,394 overdose-related deaths in Georgia alone, which means 13 out of every 100,000 residents lost their lives to drugs. While this is beneath the current national average, the rate at which the number is climbing, the reports coming from those on the ground, and the amount of arrests and crime that have occurred in correlation to drugs tells a harrowing tale of a state losing the war against this epidemic.
Appropriately, in May 2017, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation declared a safety alert regarding the different types of fentanyl in Georgia, a powerful new opioid killing users without mercy (we’ll touch more on this later). These numbers make sense when regarding Georgia as a whole, but why is it that there has been a large volume of press on Atlanta’s suburbs?
In short: when we take a look at how the drug and overdoses statistics scale alongside the state’s, the drugs in the suburbs shed a new evil on Georgia’s problem.
Recently, an 11Alive Investigation exposed a region that has been titled ‘The Triangle’ in Georgia. It’s a small strip of Georgia that covers South Atlanta, Alpharetta, and Dunwoody, then everywhere in between. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health database, in that area alone—in only five years—there has been a 4000% increase in opioid-related deaths. This upswing in overdoses drastically supersedes the condition of the state.
In certain counties, the drug abuse statistics in Georgia are disturbing. Take Fulton County, for instance, which experienced 60 overdoses in 2016 at the hand of opioids. Skip to 2017 and that number more than doubled, leaving the community with 130 dead in only a years’ time. This sort of increase can be witnessed in a host of different counties and is indicative of how badly the opioid epidemic is infiltrating certain suburbs.
Again, while there isn’t enough public data to identify root causes, many professionals are speculating that low income, isolated areas which have access to such opioids are seeing a rise in drug use due to the neighborhoods themselves. A large indicator is that there hasn’t been any reports of state students using opioids, nor has there been as drastic of a swing in Atlanta.
Being that opioid addiction consumes its victims, tarnishing their lives and burning through their wallets, it’s not the sort of ailment that can be managed while in school… or in any productive environment, for that matter. Long story short: with a surplus of opioids in the region, the unmotivated youth that live there—which already have a higher propensity for drug use—take painkillers because there’s nothing else to do and they’re accessible.
A decade before, the demographic regarding something like heroin use would’ve been centralized on low income, minority groups. Today, that isn’t the case. The demographic of those overdosing in Georgia’s suburbs highlights a tragic truth: this epidemic is affecting people of all ages, colors, and tax brackets. No one is impervious to its influence.
The Deeper Problem
While this is a topic of much controversy, it’s commonly agreed among healthcare professionals that the way in which our healthcare system has classified and treated pain is to blame. Rather than trying to cure an ailment, the health care system has largely become about managing pain. Pain, now viewed as a treatable condition, sounds a siren for medication. As unscrupulous or ignorant doctors overprescribe opioids, the toxic nature of the drug took hold of its patients, throwing them headfirst into addiction. This phenomenon has been active for decades now.
The suburbs in Atlanta fall victim to the same issue. It has been a problem that, while currently explosive, has grown steadily over the years. Due to the amount of painkillers oversaturated in Georgian society, when a youth turns to drugs the likelihood they’ll have access to painkillers is much greater. Sadly, it’s plausible and even assumed at times that they first encountered the drug in a doctor’s office. We’ve witnessed drug trends—there was the heroin filled 70s (post-Vietnam) and the cocaine infested 80s—and now there’s the painkiller 2000s and they’re being abused because that’s what’s on the table.
Recently, fentanyl and U-7700 (commonly referred to as U-4) have been traced in seized batches of opioids across Georgia. As aforementioned, in May of last year Georgia released a safety warning regarding these substances, being that they were rapidly killing those exposed to them. Some 17 people lost their lives to fentanyl and U-4 in a span of four months, which totaled more than the death count of the previous year. Studies show that Fentanyl was responsible for half of the overdoses in the US.
While these drugs are FDA approved, they’re only prescribed in severe cases, typically given to late stage cancer patients or those recovering from invasive surgeries. Fentanyl, per microgram, is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. Let that sink in.
Due to bootleg labs and their pursuits to replicate the molecular structure of fentanyl, now America as a whole is seeing a rise of the drug, and it’s an ugly, ugly sight. The budget-efficiency and strength of fentanyl are its sole appeal. A small amount of fentanyl or U-4 mixed into a low quality batch of heroin can turn it into the hottest brown on the market.
Tragically, the drug is also cut into other substances by the hands of those who have no training or professional experience, leaving many factors up to chance. When too much fentanyl is cut into a given substance, certain counties will witness a surge of overdoses occur in sequence. Atlanta suburbs are not impervious to fentanyl and it too has infiltrated Georgian communities.
Heroin is an opiate, which means it stems from the same family tree as opioids. Being that, at their root molecular structure, they’re nearly akin, they can often be interchanged with opioids. Often, when an opioid addiction begins, the drugs are easily obtainable. Either a prescription has been administered and can be refilled or prescribed again, or someone selling the drug has the same access.
As the addiction evolves, if one is to lose their source of ‘legal’ opioids, they turn to the streets in hopes of obtaining their fix. According to Vice Magazine, if an opioid addict is to buy their pills off the everyday drug dealer, the burden can cost them anywhere from $100-375 dollars a day. Thus, like cocaine, it’s an economically taxing addiction.
But what’s now cheaper than opioids? Heroin. Sometimes, a single painkiller can cost upwards of $30. Yet, a small bag of heroin that will have provide plenty more usage can be $10. Thus, former opioid users—often the type of personality or demographic that would’ve never contemplated heroin use—turn to heroin because it’s a cheaper way to put a band-aid on their problem.
Currently, nearly 90% of heroin addicts first begin their addiction genesis with prescription pills. Given that last year alone there were nearly 10 million prescriptions written in Georgia alone, it shouldn’t be a surprise that $2.2 million dollars’ worth of heroin was seized last year. Any time a bell is rung for illicit substances, there’s always going to be an organization that answers. In this case, it’s the Mexican Cartels streamlining their efforts toward states like Georgia struggling with not only opioid addiction, but the heroin usage that follows.
What are Georgian suburbs doing to combat the problem?
In 2017, both North Fulton city and Alpharetta established a program that aimed to reduce opioid abuse in their counties. Assisted by Alpharetta’s Rotary Club, the city invested in a series of boxes installed in police stations and fire stations. These high security, nearly impenetrable boxes are not cheap, costing around one thousand dollars per unit.
The idea is this: with enough of these boxes in the city, then those that want to help combat the issue can take unused or leftover prescription drugs and dump them. There won’t be any questions asked and the drugs that are disposed in these boxes will never see the light of day again—nor will an addict be able to access them, if they were ever stupid enough to try.
Furthermore, in the city of Johns Creek, there’s a place that addicts who want or need help can now call a sanctum; the Hub Community Resource Center. The HCRC has doubled their efforts to make themselves as available as possible for these addicts, giving them a place to turn during their most violent struggles. By providing such a hub, hope alights like a beacon, and addicts who otherwise had nowhere to go can now turn to infrastructure designed with the sole purpose of saving them.
Lastly, many state senators are currently banding together (Renee Unermann, for example) to combat the opioid crisis in Georgian suburbs. By working in aims to create more availability for Naloxone and striving to educate the public on medicated and nonmedicated means of curbing addiction, these counties sometimes find more success in their own, localized practices than the state as a whole.
Last year, Trump passed on a $12 million dollar grant to assist Georgia in fighting their war against the drug addiction and the opioid epidemic. More and more awareness is being brought to this rather horrifying and sensitive issue. In time, we’re hoping to see a correction in usage and overdose statistics.
The opioid epidemic is a tricky one. How does the healthcare system manage pain and fight addiction at the same time? With a society now acclimated to the idea that pain can be treated, how do we make a correction large enough to remove opioid addiction from the picture completely? In some ways, the same drug which helps sufferers live also kills them in the process.
But there is middle ground, and many would argue that it begins with healthcare standards and transcends into doctor’s offices. Regardless, when it comes to the opioid epidemic, knowledge is power. Staying educated on the issue is paramount, as it begets awareness, and everyone in Georgia should know what we’re up against.