01 Dec The Source of Georgia’s Drug Problem
We as a country have been fighting the war on drugs for over two decades with very few gains made over that time period. In many ways, it is and always has been an unwinnable war because the enemy is faceless, nameless and the perpetrators are American citizens. This fight is made even more difficult as the line blurs between citizen and criminal, especially when you consider the fact that one in five Americans will take some form of illegal substance on a monthly basis. Because of their widespread use and availability, keeping many of these substances entirely out of the general public’s hands is nearly impossible. Matters are only made worse when the Americans sees inconsistencies on what we label dangerous; weed, which is responsible for zero fatalities or overdoses ever, is illegal in many states, while alcohol and cigarettes take the lives of hundreds of thousands annually but retain a legal status.
As a result, it is important to pick our battles wisely and focus on the things that do the most damage or are the greatest concern to the public welfare. Without doubt, substances such as cocaine, meth, and others are dangerous and should be avoided, however, there is one culprit that has rapidly become public enemy number one and yet still retained its shiny legal status, opiates. The deadly nature of opiates are responsible for a nationwide epidemic that has resulted in billions of dollars spent because of healthcare and crime increases and thousands of lives lost annually.
The state of Georgia has not fared this crisis much better than the rest of the country. In fact, Georgia falls among the top 10 states in the country with the highest number of prescription opioid overdoses annually. Over the last ten years, there have been 1000% increases in hospitals as a result of opioid overdose hospital admissions. On average, over 1,300 Georgians overdose on opioids per year, accounting for more than 80% of all reported overdoses within the state. This number has tripled in the last twenty years and these numbers are only expected to continue to rise. 1 out of every 10,000 Georgian citizens dies from an opioid overdose. While this number may seem small, consider the fact that the rate of death is almost identical to annual automobile fatalities within the state.
According to the CDC, 360,000 Georgians, roughly 4.5%, use pain relievers for non-medical purposes. Shockingly, Georgian teens account for an even higher 6.25% of the population. One of the trends seen in Georgia is how the demographics of drug users have dramatically shifted. In the past, addiction was highly correlated with minorities and low-income neighborhoods, with opiates however, we have seen noticeable increases in addiction in middle class majority white neighborhoods. Further, there has been an increase in abuse seen in senior citizens. These shifting demographics serve to demonstrate how widespread this epidemic is. This is not a problem that is going away any time soon, so you as a parent or upstanding member of society should be aware of: what opiates are, why they are so dangerous and what damage they are causing to the state.
What is an Opiate?
Opiates are a pain-relieving drug amalgamated from alkaloids within the opium poppy’s sap. People have used them since ancient days both medicinally and recreationally. Opiates act on the central nervous system by attaching to and activating opioid receptor proteins all throughout the body. This bonding acts as a shield for the brain of sorts by hindering the transmission of pain signals. Because of their effectiveness in masking pain, they are currently the most extensive type of drug prescribed for pain medication.
Types of Opiates Found in Georgia
Without doubt, the vast majority of Georgians who fall into the clutches of opiate addiction do so without the intentions of abusing the drug. So, how does it happen? In short, doctors over prescribe it. According to the FDA, healthcare providers in the state of Georgia wrote more than 8 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2016… the population of Georgia is 10.3 million. As a result, most people’s addiction begins in a doctor’s office or in a parent’s medicine cabinet. Researchers searching for trends in teenage opiate abuse found strong correlations between teenagers first consuming the drug for medical reasons and then abusing it down the road. They write, “Most American teenagers who abuse opioid drugs first received the drugs from a doctor.” In addition to over prescribing, the extremely addictive nature of opiates leads to a whole host of other problems.
There are three specific categories of opiates: naturally occurring, semi-synthetic, and synthetic.
Naturally Occurring Opiates– are derived naturally from the milk of the opium poppy’s seed pod.
- Morphine – is a commonly used as pain medication, taken by injection or orally, for people with chronic or severe acute pain. It acts directly on the central nervous system to manage pain so it is extremely potent and addictive.
Semi-synthetic opiates – are derived from morphine, the most active substance within opium and sometimes combined with other substances. They were intended to be viable alternatives to more conventional means.
- Oxycodone – is an oral pain medication, synthesized from thabaine within the Persian poppy. It is prescribed for moderate to severe pain.
- Heroin – technically referred to as diamorphine by medical experts, heroin is the most commonly used recreational opiate in the state of Georgia. It is extremely addictive and is responsible for the deaths of thousands annually.
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin) – marketed as Vicodin, hydrocodone is the most commonly prescribed pain relief drug in Georgia.
Synthetic – opiates are synthetically created to mimic the chemical structure of raw opium. They are man-made, and act on the brain in a nearly identical fashion.
- Codeine – is a mild opiate, meant to combat coughs and fight mild to moderate pain. Although not nearly as addictive or potent as most opiates, the pleasant anesthetic effect of the drug on the mind, naturally leads to overuse or recreational use. One of the more popular ways that Georgian teenagers and young adults abuse codeine is by smoking blunts (miniature-weed cigars) that have been dipped in it. The potent combination of the two is very dangerous, especially when combined with alcohol.
- Fentanyl – is a rapid onset severe pain medication that is reported to be 50 times stronger than morphine or other comparable pain relievers. It has quickly become the most used synthetic opiate in Georgia and has caused a miniature crisis on its own right due to its extreme potency.
Consequences of the Opiate Epidemic
Drug Related Crime in Georgia – In every society throughout modern times, drugs and a black market for their dispensation has lead to more crime. It makes sense since gangs and organized crime syndicates are generally the main distributors and they do not limit the illicit activity to just that. Besides organized drug crime, drug addiction quite often leads to other forms of crime such as breaking and entering, petty theft, and grand theft in search for drugs or money to pay for drugs. Multiple pharmacies were robbed in Georgia over the last year, an unusual crime for the state until recently. Opiate addiction has also lead to poor decision making such as driving under the influence.
Heroin use on the Rise – Heroin is the natural progression that most addicts take once prescription pills are not enough to satisfy their craving. It is estimated that over 80% Georgians who have ended up addicted to Heroin began with some form of opiates. The reason why this sequence occurs is due to the fact that once a habit is formed, it is both expensive and hard to attain enough pills to sate your craving. If you try and find them via illegal means, the cost for prescription pills skyrockets to as much as $25 per pill. On the other hand, a bag of dope gives you a better, stronger, longer lasting high and costs half the price. Because of the addictive nature and potency of heroin, the rates of heroin overdoses in Georgia have increased every year since 2000. In 2016, more than 250 Georgian’s died from medical complications or overdoses.
Fentanyl – As mentioned previously, Fentanyl is a synthetic pain killer created to be exponentially stronger than morphine. Fentanyl was originally developed to be a pain reliever for late-stage cancer patients. It has also often used for very invasive surgeries or given to relieve patients who are dying and in severe pain. While this might be fantastic for hospitals, a Chinese replicate of fentanyl, has proved to be popular on the black market for drug dealers as a cost effective way to maximize profit. By cutting the much more powerful pill up, it can be thinned out and mixed with other substances to look like a regular painkiller. So, when an addict buys what they think is a Percocet or Vicodin and takes their usual amount, it is extremely easy to overdose. In Southern Georgia earlier this year, seven people died suddenly when taking yellow pills stamped with the word Percocet. When the drugs were tested they were discovered to be a form of fentanyl. The Attorney General of Georgia, Christopher Carr, recently said that the state has seen a 200% increase in fentanyl overdoses in the last year. Sadly, these numbers are not expected to dip any time soon.
What is Being Done to Combat the Opiate Epidemic?
Georgian lawmakers are working to fight the epidemic across the state. In May, Governor Nathan Deal, signed into law three separate pieces of legislation to try and promote positive change.
House Bill 121 – In December, the Georgia Pharmacy Board, asked Deal to help them remove naloxone, an emergency drug that effectively fights opiate overdoses, from the dangerous drug list. Bill 121 rescheduled Naloxone as a Schedule V exempt drug and to have it available for dispensary at over-the-counter pharmacies across Georgia.
House Bill 88 – Requires that the Department of Community Health to create minimum standards and quality of services for narcotic treatment programs seeking licenses. It will also create tighter regulations on treatment centers in order to prevent Georgian’s from abusing the system to get more drugs.
House Bill 249 – Makes several changes to the Georgia Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. This bill requires physicians to better research patient prescription history. It further moves the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program from the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency to the Department of Public Health.
The Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act – Congress has also recently passed CARA, a six-step program intended to contest the opiate epidemic. The goals of CARA are as follows:
- Expand prevention and educational efforts—particularly aimed at teens, parents and other caretakers, and aging populations—to prevent the abuse of methamphetamines, opioids and heroin, and to promote treatment and recovery.
- Expand the availability of naloxone to law enforcement agencies and other first responders to help in the reversal of overdoses to save lives.
- Expand resources to identify and treat incarcerated individuals suffering from addiction disorders promptly by collaborating with criminal justice stakeholders and by providing evidence-based treatment.
- Expand disposal sites for unwanted prescription medications to keep them out of the hands of our children and adolescents.
- Launch an evidence-based opioid and heroin treatment and intervention program to expand best practices throughout the country.
- Launch a medication-assisted treatment and intervention demonstration program.
- Strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs to help states monitor and track prescription drug diversion and to help at-risk individuals access services.
The opiate epidemic is costing Georgia a massive amount of money for treatment, crime prevention and healthcare costs. Far worse though, are the hundreds of lives lost annually, not to mention the countless broken dreams, families and lives that naturally result from opiate addiction. If you know someone who is battling addiction, encourage him or her to get help by receiving treatment at rehab. If you yourself are struggling with opiate addiction, there are dozens of options you can take and plenty of people out there who want to help you get clean. Opiates have become the main source of Georgia’s drug problem, but they do not have to be.