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GBI testing data shows meth still top drug, but heroin on rise
Authorities seized 20 pounds of methamphetamine, a half pound of cocaine and 6 pounds of marijuana during a 10-month investigation into the "Lenox Park Cartel."

More samples of methamphetamine were tested by Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab than the next five drugs on the list combined, according to a study of the first five months of 2018.

For Hall County, the top three drugs tested by the GBI lab so far in 2018 are marijuana with 10 instances, methamphetamine with nine instances and one instance of “spice,” a type of synthetic marijuana.

Changing habits

Drugs tested by GBI lab January-May 22 statewide

Methamphetamine: 1,890

Cocaine: 891

Alprazolam: 201

Oxycodone: 196

Heroin: 175

Hydrocodone: 120

Drugs tested by GBI lab in 2017 statewide

Methamphetamine: 12,641

Cocaine: 6,034

Alprazolam: 1,843

Oxycodone: 1,365

Heroin: 1,223

Hydrocodone: 1,040

Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigations

Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad Lt. Don Scalia said he would expect the number of samples sent to the GBI for testing to be much higher, as the lab has been known to operate with a backlog. The MANS unit also does some of the marijuana testing in-house, mostly if it is in its leafy green form.

“It would be kind of rare for us to send marijuana unless it was in the liquid forms of it, what they call butter and that kind of thing. We don’t have facilities to test that,” Scalia said.

Through May 22, the crime lab tested 1,890 samples of meth from across the state, followed by cocaine, alprazolam, oxycodone, heroin and hydrocodone.

Methamphetamine was also the most tested in 2017 with a total 12,641 samples tested at the crime lab, where law enforcement agencies across the state send their samples.

“It’s still the No. 1 drug that we deal with,” Scalia said of the narcotics squad on methamphetamine. “Of course, heroin is making some serious inroads as are prescription drugs and the opioid derivatives.”

The Times performed an analysis on all Hall County Sheriff’s Office drug seizure cases by type between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017. The result was 364 cases of marijuana followed by 259 instances of methamphetamine.

There were 265 seizures of prescription medication of all types in that time period, with oxycodone and alprazolam as the most prevalent. Alprazolam is commonly seen as Xanax, and hydrocodone is sold as Vicodin.

Scott Hinchman, program director at the addiction residential program The Agora House, said meth “never quite went away.”

“I think it’s because of where we are. We’re in a region, especially as we move further out like toward Stephens County, (where) rurally, it has never quite subsided,” he said.

The first half of 2018 brought numerous meth busts in the six-figure range. On May 17, the MANS unit confiscated a kilogram of the drug worth $100,000 at a Gainesville apartment.

The next day, a White County Sheriff’s Office deputy found crystal meth in a Cleveland storage unit, leading to 8 pounds of the drug valued at $395,000.

On July 10, the Union County narcotics division searched a Blairsville address and discovered 6 kilograms of crystal meth worth $600,000. Investigators considered it the largest meth seizure in the area’s history.

Hinchman has around 20 participants with half considering heroin or other opiates as their drug of choice. Meth is considered the drug of choice for fewer than half of the other participants, Hinchman said.

The GBI said it does not test every item submitted by law enforcement and does not routinely test marijuana because of limited resources, spokeswoman Nelly Miles said.

“There is currently a large backlog so in order to service their customers, they test one item that will yield the highest penalty,” Miles said.

Miles said lab chemists also train local law enforcement how to identify marijuana so that “the lab’s resources can be applied to other drug cases.”

In the past couple of months, Scalia said the MANS unit has noticed an uptick in heroin.

“Heroin has always concerned me through the years. I don’t like seeing an uptick in any of that because I know how dangerous of a drug that is, especially with the addition of fentanyl into that mix,” he said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug 100 times stronger than morphine.

Gwinnett County has the second highest rate of opioids behind Cobb County and ahead of Fulton, DeKalb and Chatham counties.

On July 2, the GBI released a study on counterfeit pills after 100 exhibits were tested through fiscal year 2018. The top counterfeited logo was oxycodone, and opioid drugs were most commonly found inside the pills.

In 2017, the GBI said there were six instances of counterfeit pills found in Hall County and seven cases in Forsyth County.

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