President Barack Obama has proposed $1.1 billion in new spending to fight an epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse that has taken its toll on urban and rural communities across the country, including in Gainesville and Hall County.
“Overdose from prescription medications and other drugs is not a new issue, but it’s impacting communities that have traditionally seen themselves as immune to its reach,” said Jeremy Galloway, a Dahlonega resident and former heroin addict who is now a certified addiction recovery empowerment specialist in a peer-based support program developed by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.
Drug overdoses are now common in suburban communities and transcend socio-economic lines, Galloway said.
For example, 387 overdose-related calls for help were made to Hall County’s emergency 911 line in 2014, and another 295 calls were made in 2015.
The Gainesville Police Department is now taking an extra step to combat heroin and prescription drug overdoses by teaming with the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation to acquire 82 naloxone kits.
Naloxone reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, as studies have shown it has a success rate as high as 98 percent.
And the Hall County Sheriff’s Office has also trained its patrol officers, school resource officers and first responders to administer naloxone through the nose or via injection.
Jeremy Sharp, a student at the University of North Georgia who founded the Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, said his group has recorded at least 37 instances of police officers in the state administering naloxone to save a life.
THE NEXT STEPS
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that overdose deaths from prescription painkillers are more common than heroin and cocaine combined.
Opioids were involved in 28,648 deaths nationwide in 2014, and heroin abuse or dependence has climbed 90 percent over the last decade or more.
Deaths from overdoses quadrupled during that period, resulting in 8,257 lives lost in 2013.
Put another way, more people die from drug overdoses annually than they do in motor vehicle accidents.
The president’s proposal comes on the heels of previous efforts to combat the growing problem, such as the CDC pumping $20 million into prevention initiatives across 16 states.
In Georgia, lawmakers passed a medical amnesty law that gives immunity to drug users who call for medical help in the event of an overdose.
And a bill currently proposed in the state legislature would require education and addiction counseling for all patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain.
Galloway works in what is known as the “harm reduction” community, advocating for less punitive measures to combat drug addiction, with a focus on treatment and recovery over incarceration.
He has helped train and equip methadone clinics and drug rehabilitation programs across North Georgia with naloxone, including the Lanier Treatment Center in Gainesville.
And that’s where a new faith-based program is launching this week to address the psychological and emotional trauma many addicts have experienced.
Matthew Mote, clinic administrator at Lanier Treatment Center, said there is a correlation, or even root cause, between drug abuse and childhood trauma for many of his patients.
And others have experienced trauma as a result of drug abuse, he added.
The eight-week program begins today, and a second phase will encompass small group and specialized treatment.
“Drug addiction impacts not only the individual but the family and community,” Mote said. “I am glad to see efforts to educate about the epidemic. I am also very glad to see evidence-based practices such as medication-assisted treatment as part of the plan.”
If approved by Congress, the new funding proposed by the president would be spread over two years to increase treatment access, as well as help develop stronger guidelines for writing prescriptions.
The funding would also support local law enforcement efforts to target “pill mills” and patients who doctor-shop for drugs.
There were dozens of arrests made for intent to sell prescription drugs last year in Hall County, according to Lt. Scott Ware of the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad.
There were also six heroin trafficking arrests made, and a kilo of the drug was confiscated in 2014.
Ware said there may have been more arrests and certainly more drug crimes undetected, but prescription sales, for example, are difficult to prove because offenders are obtaining the drugs legally.
Ware also said he has seen a spike in the prevalence of heroin on the streets in recent years, which, in some cases, has become a cheaper, stronger alternative to prescription drugs.
The call for new funding, with a specific focus on prevention and treatment, has advocates energized.
Galloway said he has met with state public health officials who are looking to organizations like the Georgia Overdose Prevention network and Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition for guidance and support.
And he is sharing his own story of addiction and recovery at community forums across metro Atlanta.
“We’re paving the way into uncharted territory,” Galloway said.