25 Jun How is Georgia Fighting its War on Drugs
Although rates and pervasiveness of particular public health issues may vary on a state by state basis, it is an unfortunate truth that government officials and community leaders in every town, city, county, and state within the United States all have crises that must be addressed. Some of these issues are localized and out of officials’ control such as a disease outbreak or a natural disaster and others, on the other hand, are universal.
One such common calamity that is prevalent throughout the country is that of drug and substance abuse. Despite decades and trillions of dollars spent on fighting this war on drugs, this particular hurdle remains as difficult an issue to tackle as ever before with drug abuse statistics in Georgia increasing at a shocking rate. While these numbers alone are staggering, the tertiary issues that stem from drug abuse such as increases in poverty, crime, and health costs, makes this an even more pressing issue to overcome.
In recent years, drug overdoses surpassed all other factors as the leading killer of Americans beneath the age of fifty. In fact, there were more drug overdose deaths in 2017 than gun homicides, car accidents, and animal-related deaths. For people under the age of thirty-five, motor vehicle accidents were once the leading cause of death, now that ignominious title goes to opioids. In Georgia, these trends have manifested over the last decade, with over 1,000 Georgians dying per year from complications resulting from drug use. Some may argue that Georgia falls beneath the national average, but that fails to acknowledge the fact that drug overdoses within the state have nearly quadrupled since the turn of the millennia with approximately 11 drug overdoses for every 100,000 Georgians, especially in the triangle tragedy of Georgia.
Now, some substances are more widely used by various demographics or age groups, and as a result, different actions must be taken to effectively fight those issues in the attempt to save lives. Below, we will discuss the most dangerous and significant substances abused by Georgians and then detail how lawmakers have been attempting to curtail their prevalence.
Opioids are pain-relieving drugs meant for medium to severe pain that are derived from the opium poppy. These pain relievers activate the body’s natural opioid receptors by suppressing the signals sent through the central nervous system. There are three types of opioids:
- Natural opiates – plant-based alkaloids such as morphine, codeine, and thebaine
- Semi-synthetic opioids – man-made, lab-based opioids created from natural opiates. These include hydromorphone, oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone, and heroin.
- Fully synthetic opioids – wholly man-made and include fentanyl, methadone, tramadol, levorphanol, and pethidine.
While opioids are most commonly used to treat pain, they can be used for other issues as well. The pharmacologic effects suppress pain and produce a euphoric high, which means they have an extremely high potential for misuse, abuse, dependence, and overdose, which is why these prescription drugs have become Georgia’s greatest problem.
Georgia’s opioid epidemic is ranked the 9th most state in overdoses, averaging more than 1,400 overdoses annually. These staggering numbers represent a 1000% increase over the past decade, and it does not appear that they will level off at any point in the near future. SAMSHA, the Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Administration reported that 4.5% of adults and 6.5% of teenagers used opioids for non-medical purposes. A recent poll revealed that fifty percent of opioid overdoses happened to people who were not originally prescribed the pain medication and that more than two-thirds of opioid users had taken opioids at one time or another that were someone else’s.
This drug sharing phenomenon may in part be a result of overprescribing. The Journal of American Medical Association said that two in three patients prescribed opioids had leftovers when they were done needing them. As a result, they are accessible to teenagers, or available if the owner wants to share them or use them in a recreational manner. In the early 2000’s the economic cost of medical health care for opioid abuse on an annual basis in Georgia was approximately $500 million, today, that number has ballooned to $15 billion per year. These figures do not even begin to account for the concurrent costs to the state as a result of, petty crime, violent crimes, and any other drug related crimes in Georgia.
The heroin epidemic in Georgia is responsible for roughly ten percent of all opioid overdoses within in the state. One section of Atlanta, known as the Heroin triangle of Fulton County, experienced a 4,000% spike in heroin-related deaths of young people aged 15-35. Oddly, this increase has occurred concurrently with a shift in demographics of heroin users in Georgia. While it was once a drug associated with low-income minorities, the profile has shifted to middle-class whites. The once U.S Attorney John Horn recently spoke on the matter saying, “For some areas of the country, heroin abuse is the single largest public health issue, and these alarming trends have unfortunately come to Georgia. The same factors and causes that have led to the crises in New England and the Midwest are found here, and deaths from heroin overdoses are multiplying both in the city as well as the suburban counties. Steps must be taken now to head off this trend before heroin becomes our biggest issue because the effects on the communities where this has happened are truly devastating.”
Georgian officials have taken several steps in an attempt to combat this growing calamity. The first was to create statewide educational programs to create awareness and teach Georgians about the dangers of opioids. The Trump administration also granted Georgia an additional $12 million to study the crisis and look for ways to combat it. Georgian governor, Nathan Deal, also signed into law three pieces of legislation intended curb this issue. They include:
- House Bill 88 – A bill that compels that the Georgian Department of Community Health establishes minimum standards and quality of services for narcotic treatment programs that desire licenses. On top of that, it increases regulations on treatment centers and attempts to fix loopholes
- House Bill 121 – A bill that reschedules Naloxone, the emergency overdose drug, as a Schedule V exempt drug. Drug exemption would allow Naloxone to be available over the counter at just about any pharmacy in Georgia.
- House Bill 249 – This bill was meant to enhance the Georgia Prescription Drug Monitoring Program by forcing physicians to research a patient’s prescription history and in order to stop drug seeking behaviors. It also shifts the prescription drug monitoring program under the auspices of the DPH.
Cocaine is an incredibly addictive and powerful stimulant created from the leaves of the coca plant. While it was initially used for medical purposes such as local anesthesia, it is and has been illegal in the U.S for decades. It increases dopamine levels within the brain by preventing dopamine from recycling and thus creating massive buildups of dopamine between nerve cells. The ensuing dopamine flood to the brain creates a cocaine high that is marked by brief euphoria and extreme alertness. It appears as a fine white powder that is most often consumed through snorting.
Cocaine in its crystalline form is known as Crack. The powder cocaine is dissolved into a mixture of water and either sodium bicarbonate or ammonia. That is then boiled into a solid, cooled, dried and cut up into rocks. It is then heated and smoked in order to get a stronger high. Since smoking it allows the substance to reach the brain quicker, it results in a more immediate and intense effect, but one that lasts no longer than twenty minutes. Smoking crack is far more addictive than simply snorting cocaine, and users can find themselves physically dependent after their first time. Due to its exorbitantly high costs, cocaine was considered a high-end luxury drug of the rich and famous. Crack, on the other hand, is incredibly cheap and became the drug of the poor.
In Georgia, both of these drugs pose significant problems. Cocaine is the most commonly cited illegal drug that Georgians attempt to get clean from with two in three of those cocaine users addicted to crack. Additionally, it is the second most used drug in the state behind marijuana. According to NIDA, at least one in four Georgians between the ages of 25 and 35 have used some form of cocaine at least one time within the past year.
In 2017 alone, approximately 500 Georgians died as a result of complications from cocaine use, such as OD, heart attack, respiratory arrest or a stroke. In recent years, a new issue has cropped up on the East Coast, cocaine that is cut with fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opiate that has quickly become one of the most dangerous drugs on the street. Although numbers for Georgia specifically are unavailable, on a nationwide basis, drug overdose deaths related to synthetic opiates and cocaine rose to a staggering 4,200 deaths in 2016 alone. Experts remain uncertain whether this recent spate of deaths are a result of users mixing the two themselves, or dealers mixing the products, either knowingly or unknowingly. Regardless, the mixture makes the drug infinitely more lethal as a result.
In order to fight this issue, lawmakers have placed emphasis on cleaning up the streets and putting harsher penalties on drug possession and distribution. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has partnered with local law enforcement to aid the statewide multi-jurisdictional drug task force to bring down trafficking rings and attempt to halt the flow of cocaine in the region. Atlanta’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area also focuses on the most highly concentrated drug region of the state, by working with communities, especially those low-income communities to curb the movement of the drug and prevent it from getting into the hands of urban youth. Such initiatives include a focus on education, rehabilitation, and disruption.
Bills and funding have also been put in place, which includes:
- Georgia’s 911 Medical Amnesty Law – Although it applies to any drug, Georgia’s new law was created in addendum to the original Good Samaritan Law. The bill is meant “to protect individuals from arrest, prosecution, or conviction of certain drug offenses if the evidence for any action results from seeking medical assistance for someone thought to be suffering from drug overdose.” This was put in place to encourage users to call first responders without fear of repercussions or arrest, which might prevent them from calling.
- Statewide media campaigns to raise awareness on drug abuse issues, increase awareness and education about the rising drug problem.
- Recovery services and peer support – increase peer support throughout the state and encourages new approaches towards recovery from cocaine and crack.
At the moment, Marijuana is the most used illegal substance across the country and within the state of Georgia. Even though Marijuana in Georgia is relatively safe, especially when compared to opioids or stimulants, it is still considered to be a Schedule 1 Drug and is enforced thusly by the DEA. In Georgia, more than 660,000 citizens reported marijuana use within the last year with 100,000 being teenagers, 230,000 being young adults and 330,000 being adults above the age of 25. Since there has never been a marijuana overdose, the majority of citizens and lawmakers agree that marijuana should be made legal. While the production and sale of marijuana remain illegal, qualified patients with conditions such as M.S. or Chrone’s disease have been made exempt from criminal prosecution. Marijuana laws in Georgia have been added like the Senate Bill 614 and Senate Bill 344 which were introduced to the state Senate in February by Democratic senators. The bills would aim to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and up and would regulate the proceeds from sales. These bills are contingent upon the votes of the General Assembly and then would go on the 2018 November ballot and be up to Georgians, which would very likely pass. Currently, the bill sits with the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
The lawmakers of Georgia have been making great strides in their fight on the war on drugs in America and especially its state. While this subject is tricky and it is difficult to measure the efficacy of these actions, hopefully, the measures taken will cut down on the deaths associated with cocaine and opioids.