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Most drug arrests dont mirror prescription abuse
Overdose deaths on rise in Hall, mostly from prescribed medicines
1020drugs 1
Lt. Scott Ware of the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad holds a 2-pound bag of aging marijuana used to train drug dogs. - photo by NAT GURLEY

2012 drug arrests, by type

MDMA (Ecstasy)
5: possession, with intent, sale, 2; trafficking, 3

Crack cocaine, cocaine
12: possession, with intent, sale, 12; trafficking, n/a

Cannabis (marijuana)
34: possession, with intent, sale, 33; trafficking, 1

41: possession, with intent, sale, 32; trafficking, 9

4: possession, with intent, sale, 4; trafficking, n/a

Source: Hall County/Gainesville Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad

While most arrests are for narcotics like marijuana and methamphetamine, keeping the most deadly drugs from being abused poses a challenge for law enforcement — especially when those drugs are dispensed every day in pharmacies.

“The things that remain on the constant radar are cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana,” Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad Lt. Scott Ware said. “Pills are the most dangerous, in my opinion, and the biggest increase.”

The MANS unit is a drug task force of officers from both the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department, headed by Ware.

While patrol officers largely make drug arrests at safety checkpoints and in the course of other arrests, the MANS unit specially investigates drug targets, using tactics like surveillance, undercover officers and informants.

In 2012, the unit made 83 possession and possession with intent arrests; 33 were for marijuana, 32 for methamphetamine, 12 for cocaine, two for Ecstasy and four for prescription narcotics.

The unit made 12 trafficking arrests, for larger amounts of drugs: nine for methamphetamine, three for Ecstasy and one for marijuana.

According to county death certificates, 25 people died from accidental drug overdose in the county, 2.29 percent of the overall deaths in Hall. Overdoses have surpassed car accidents as the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the county.

“I can just tell you (from) my experience, prescription drugs are the most deadly,” Ware said. “Most of the overdose deaths have come from mixing prescription drugs and alcohol; I would attribute probably 80 percent of the deaths to prescription drugs, as opposed to methamphetamine or cocaine.”

Prescription drugs often most deadly

Dr. Tennent Slack gives lectures on the dangers of prescription drugs as part of the Think About It Campaign, launched statewide by the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation.

“With prescription opioids, the data has shown a much sharper increase in death rate than heroin, cocaine or the Valium family. In fact, it’s more than all those combined,” Slack said.

Slack said opioids, like oxycodone and hydrocodone, are especially deadly because of their depressant effect on breathing and coughing, leading to suffocation and oxygen deprivation to the brain.

To get the drugs illegally, Ware said that some dealers go to “pill mills,” under the guise of acting as pain clinics; some go doctor-to-doctor; and others simply sell a legitimate prescription.

But despite the high levels of abuse and numerous deaths, it can be difficult to combat abuse of a prescription drug for which so many have a doctor’s note.

In Hall County alone, the dispensing of oxycodone has increased by 666 percent from 2009 to 2011, Slack’s figures show.

“The whole opioid realm has been vastly ramped up because of the relentless rise in prescription drugs and annual volume of prescription opioids,” Slack said. “That opened up a great many more citizens to the possibility of opioids.”

Superior Court Judge Jason Deal heads up the drug court program in Hall County, where some addicts wind up in treatment because of illegal abuse, but prescription drug abusers may be overlooked.

“Drug court is designed for people in the legal system,” Deal said. “People are prescribed prescription drugs legally, and you assume they use them legally; not everyone does, but they’re not likely to have an encounter with law enforcement.”

Furthermore, people who die from opioid overdose aren’t necessarily taking high amounts that would indicate they got the drugs illegally — the combination of drugs is often more deadly than sheer volume, Slack said.

“There’s a synergistic effect because alcohol has a similar type of effect in terms of slowing down the central nervous system,” Slack said. “It’s not volume — taking nine oxycodone might not kill you — but combined with Valium, with a muscle relaxer, with alcohol, is where it’s especially lethal.”

Heroin increase tied to prescription abuse

Ware said 2013 drug investigations from the MANS unit returned an alarming spike in heroin.

A 30 milligram oxycodone pill, the most common dosage, costs on average $30 for one tablet, Ware said. To put that in perspective, a 10-pill-a-day addiction nets a $300 price tag.

“The trend that we’ve seen is people who are addicted to oxycodone, they begin crushing the oxycodone and snorting it, then shooting it with a syringe,” Ware said. “Then it becomes cheaper and easier to buy heroin. That’s what we’ve seen with the increase in heroin use.”

Ware said 13 have been arrested this year on heroin trafficking charges. There were no heroin arrests in 2012.

“It’s definitely been a trend this year for Hall County. I’ve been doing this 21 years and up until then I’d seen it two or three times, so it’s definitely been on the rise,” he said.

Meth, marijuana arrests persist

Marijuana netted the most for possession and possession with intent arrests of any drug at 33 cases in 2012, reflecting its continued popularity, Ware said.

“Marijuana has been a constant from the get-go,” he said. “It’s been around for a long time, and a lot of people don’t consider marijuana a harmful drug, so the marijuana arrests are constant.”

Ware said he’s seen increases in the amounts of marijuana seized.

“Seizures of over 1,000, 2,000 pounds — that’s a pretty significant amount for around here, but that’s been the trend,” he said.

Ware and Deal both cited synthetic marijuana as an increasing problem. While it hasn’t been deadly, the erratic, negative effects are a concern, they said.

“With synthetic marijuana, I don’t know of any deaths, but I know of a lot of really erratic behavior and health problems from smoking,” Ware said.

Ware also noted that Atlanta is a drug trafficking hub, and the county’s proximity makes it vulnerable to the continued infiltration of cocaine and methamphetamine.

And while drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine may not be deadly as opioids, Deal has often seen how the highly addictive drugs have affected families and society.

“I think if you went and looked at kids being taken in by (the Department of Family and Children Services), they would tell you a major issue is substance abuse,” he said. “They are less likely to work, more likely to have encounters with the law, even if it’s not drug related. Most of the theft law enforcement we deal with are drug related, and a lot of what we deal with in general are arrests related to drugs.”

Education is key to curbing abuse

Slack said legislative enforcement efforts to control drug supply may have backfired.

“Especially now that Georgia has major reforms in place to tighten up prescription opioids, people shift to heroin because it is more accessible and less expensive,” Slack said.

The Think About It Campaign stresses education. The group will soon be distributing fliers and brochures to doctor’s offices across the state, to try to reach and inform patients about safe use and disposal of prescription drugs so curious teens can’t raid the medicine cabinet.

Deal agreed that education is key in prevention for all dangerous drugs.

“I think education plays a big role,” he said. “We’ve seen the use of street drugs fall, I think, because of some of the education initiatives that occurred. I think the public needs to be educated about the dangers of prescription drugs.”

Part of that education, Deal said, is confronting a basic truth about substance abuse.

“I think that you would find people who say ‘I’m not a drug addict because I use prescription pain pills’ — if you’re addicted to a drug, you’re addicted to a drug,” he said.

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