29 May The Unspoken Truth About Georgia: People are Dying from Heroin
It is no secret that heroin is a potent drug that causes death nationwide, but did you know that people in Georgia are dying from heroin overdoses at alarming rates?
Studies have shown that deaths from a heroin overdose in the state of Georgia are up 300 percent in just the past 5 years!
Today, we’ll look into why heroin is becoming more of a drug of choice as well as why heroin overdose deaths are on the rise nationally and in Georgia.
Why are More People Using and Overdosing on Heroin?
While there are many reasons a person may overdose from heroin, there seems to be a correlation between prescription opioids and heroin. Heroin is more readily available than prescription opioids, is cheaper and often has a higher purity, making it more attractive to users and contributing to the rise in overdose deaths.
There have been many stories of people dying from a heroin overdose after a history of prescription drug abuse for some time beforehand. Prescription opioids, in particular, are dangerous because users can build up a tolerance to the drug. Once they do, they will need a higher dosage or take the drug more frequently to achieve the same high. When they run out of their prescription, they will sometimes turn to an opioid like heroin, which is more readily available on the street and often at a cheaper price. The drug will give them a similar high, and is equally, if not more, tolerance building. This leads to dangerous levels of intake of the drug, which can put users at a higher risk for overdose.
Users of heroin are especially at risk overdose because the ingredients of the drug aren’t regulated. The “street” form of the drug is often “chopped up” or mixed with other substances, which can produce a potentially fatal mixture. Users don’t know if the drug is going to be mixed or if the batch the use will be stronger than what they got last time.
Unfortunately, due to the unpredictability of a heroin mixture, a single shot can cause an overdose as well. It all depends.
Studies have shown that roughly 80 percent of heroin users have reported using prescription opioids for nonmedical reasons before they started to use heroin. This would suggest that prescription opioids act as a gateway to heroin. Overall, however, under 5 percent of those who use prescription opioids for nonmedical reasons begin using heroin. This may seem like a small percentage, but it actually amounts to several hundred thousand new heroin users per year— not a small number at all and one the nation and state of Georgia cannot afford to ignore.
The demographics of those who use heroin is also shifting in recent years. During the 1960s, heroin users were mostly young minority males who lived in urban areas. Now, those who start using heroin are trending a little older, with a mean age of first use at 22.9 years old, compared to 16.5 years back in the 60s.
These users are also now more concentrated to rural and suburban areas, where it was previously mainly in the cities. Users of heroin are also trending more and more to Caucasians.
The CDC reports that those at highest risk for a heroin addiction are those who have abused prescription opioid painkillers, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. These people are generally within 18 to 25 years old and live in large metropolitan areas, are without health insurance or are enrolled in Medicaid.
What are the National Stats vs. Georgia?
In April 2016 the Georgia Prevention Project began a program called Substance Abuse Research Alliance (SARA). The collaboration of more than 60 participants, including researchers and practitioners with years of experience in drug abuse, hopes to assist the Georgia State Senate Study Committee on Opioids and Heroin.
According to SARA, opioid overdoses – including prescription opioids and heroin – kill 78 people daily nationwide, a number that has quadrupled since 1999. 2015 actually marked a high point in the national opioid epidemic. Overdose deaths increased from 28,647 to 33,091. Between 2011 and 2015, deaths related to heroin more than tripled to 12,990. This accounts for more than half of the 52,000 deaths from an overdose during that time span. Since 2000, more than 300,000 people have died from opioid overdoses.
Yet despite the astounding numbers, prescriptions for opioid analgesics continues to rise. Misuse of these drugs, which can grow into heroin use, is on the rise as well. In fact, 12.5 million Americans said they abused pain relievers in 2014. Two million of those reported having a pain reliever drug use disorder. During that same year, roughly 914,000 Americans said they had used heroin, 519,000 of whom met the criteria for a heroin use disorder. This is becoming costly nationwide, as the cost of prescription opioid misuse was estimated at $78.5 billion for just the year 2013.
While the problem is nationwide, the rates of heroin overdoses in the state of Georgia are especially high. Opioids like heroin and prescription pain relievers were are the main cause of drug overdose deaths in Georgia. There were 1,307 overdose deaths in Georgia in 2015. Of those, 88 percent were due to opioids, including heroin. The rate has tripled since 1999 and increased by over 10 percent in the past couple years, according to the CDC.
Between 1999 and 2014, overdose deaths from opioids in Georgia increased significantly from 0.6 to 5.5 per 100,000 people. This rate is comparable to the national increase of 1.4 to 5.9 per 100,000 people. Yet during this time period, the rate of opioid deaths in Georgia rose to much higher than the rate of opioid deaths in other states.
A report by the Center of Disease Control (CDC) showed a significant increase in heroin overdoses in the Peach State between 2014 and 2015, rising from 153 deaths in 2014 to 222 in 2015. Since 2011 heroin deaths in the state of Georgia have increased by 300 percent.
29 Georgia counties had overdose rates that outpaced the national average. Georgia also ranks among the top 11 states for prescription opioid overdose deaths. In the state of Georgia, drug overdose deaths are now nearly equal to deaths from motor vehicle crashes. Heroin and prescription opioids accounted for 68 percent of overdose deaths in Georgia during 2015.
The statistics also show a shift away from cities into rural areas. Sixty percent of Georgia’s 55 counties had overdose rates higher than the national average in 2014. These counties are in rural areas that have limited access to substance abuse treatment centers.
The sale of opioids has quadrupled in the United States between 1999 and 2014, making heroin much more readily available as well.
Where in Georgia is it a Problem?
In previous years, heroin was a problem mostly just in the city of Atlanta, but in recent years, there have been much more deaths in counties outside of the city.
Two years ago, a group of roughly 180 representatives of law enforcement, medical providers, substance abuse treatment providers, educators, and policymakers met for a full-day summit on the alarming growth of heroin trafficking and addiction in the Atlanta area. They found that heroin is becoming much more than just an inner-city problem, and according to Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a wide range of people are becoming affected.
“Heroin deaths have dramatically increased in Georgia over the last five years,” he said at the summit. “Today heroin users come from all backgrounds including the affluent and well educated. People who have become addicted to painkillers are finding heroin is easily accessible and inexpensive. It is important for people to understand how dangerous this drug is and to know what indicators to look for when they suspect someone may be using heroin.”
At the same summit, Jack Killorin, director of the Atlanta-Carolinas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, said that unprecedented amounts of heroin were moving into Georgia.
“We’re seeing a growing user population, moving out of traditional market areas for heroin, moving throughout the state and into the suburbs, into the high schools,” he said. “Much of this growth has been fueled by abuse of pharmaceuticals, including the illicit pill mills that distributed painkillers. As we have moved to shut down the pill mills, the markets for painkillers have been reduced, and addicts have filled that void with heroin.”
Kevin O’Brien, section chief for strategic intelligence at the DEA in Washington, spoke on behalf of the national perspective. The DEA’s findings showed that nationwide, heroin overdose deaths had increased by 173% from 2010 to 2013. More than 8,250 people die annually from heroin overdose.
He also noted that Mexican drug cartels are now moving more into the heroin market, replacing their marijuana fields with opium to produce and traffic more heroin to meet the growing demand in the United States. They are now producing the drug more often in the powder form, which helps to reduce the stigma on heroin. Many drug users stay away from the “hard” drug because of the previous belief that they had to inject the drug. The powder form can be inhaled of ingested in pill form instead of using a needle.
This shift by the cartels has been seen on a local level too. Cobb County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Jason Saliba noted an increase in heroin trafficking in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. While traditionally their source for heroin was on the west side of downtown Atlanta, the drug task force recently noticed a shift to importing from the Mexican cartels. Saliba also noted that the majority of defendants in cases where heroin is involved are now under the age of 35.
While heroin is far from the most popular drug in the area (that title still belongs to cocaine and methamphetamine), the rise of heroin use and heroin overdose is rather disturbing. According to a historical analysis by Dr. Kris Sperry, chief medical examiner for the State of Georgia, deaths from heroin overdose in the 1990s and 2000s were rarely encountered. Now, they are seen in epidemic levels.
What are the Possible Solutions?
SARA suggests making naloxone more accessible for Georgians. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist medication that reverses opioid overdose without any significant negative side effects. First responders, educators, and parents should also be trained to administer the drug and have easy access to it in emergency situations. SARA also suggests more treatment centers and increased funding to combat the epidemic.
While the state moves toward making treatment more readily available, especially in rural areas, education statewide and nationwide will be key to reducing the rate of overdose. Of course, abstinence is the best way to ensure someone never overdoses, but if use has already occurred, education and viable treatment options are the next best thing.
Georgia Drug Detox’s goal is to provide anyone battling a drug addiction with professional and comfortable drug treatment programs across the state of Georgia.
The rapid rise of drug use in Georgia is something that cannot be ignored any longer. The hard truth that in order to recover from something as harrowing as a prescription drug addiction and/or heroin abuse is a professional treatment program.
As far as education is concerned, keep checking into the Georgia Detox blog for more on drug use, prevention and treatment options.
Rass, Michael. “The Heroin Epidemic in Georgia’s Triangle.” Lakeview Health. 29 Sep. 2017. 13 Mar. 2019. https://www.lakeviewhealth.com/blog/heroin-in-georgia/
“Georgia Opioid Summary.” NIH. Feb. 2018. 13 Mar. 2019. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-summaries-by-state/georgia-opioid-summary
“Prescription Opioids and Heroin Epidemic in Georgia.” SARA. Dec. 2017. 13 Mar. 2019. https://www.acponline.org/system/files/documents/about_acp/chapters/ga/substanceabuseresearchalliancegeorgia_preventionproject2017.pdf