Standing in front of a bespeckled U.S. map representing overdoses, Deb Bailey told an audience of a “plague” of opioids.
“It has been said that the epidemic has no face. It has a face. It’s the faces of the people that look just like us in this room tonight,” said Bailey, who is the director of governmental affairs at Northeast Georgia Health Systems.
The Brenau Downtown Center’s auditorium was packed Tuesday night for the Partnership for a Drug Free Hall’s Forum Series: Not My Family. The subtitle was “Pain Pills and Heroin are Killing our Families.”
Bailey said there were an estimated 59,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2016, and Northeast Georgia Medical Center sees an average of 63 overdoses in the emergency room each month.
The partnership is represented by members of the medical community, law enforcement, church leaders and citizens regarding opioid drugs.
Despite making up 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes almost 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone, according to the National Academy of Medicine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 249 million prescriptions written in 2013, which would have been enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.
“We have to ask ourselves: when did the United States become the most painful nation in the world? When did we become one nation under drugs?” Bailey asked.
Dr. Susan Blank discussed the disease of addiction, which is considered a genetically inherited childhood disease. Using the analogy of ice cream, the doctor told the audience about the reward pathways and the science behind addictive behaviors.
“By the time they’re using on a daily basis, by the time it is really impacting their life, this is a disease that no longer makes them high. They’re not high. They’re not having a good time. They’re trying to feel normal. They’re trying to not be sick,” she said.
Blank said she used to only discuss three gateway drugs — alcohol, marijuana and tobacco — but now heroin is in the mix. She said roughly 20 percent of people addicted to opioids started with heroin.
“They don’t start with the prescription drugs anymore. They’re going right to heroin,” Blank said of the drug’s cost and accessibility.
Avery Nix, a Clermont native, shared his story of addiction and recovery. Nix had his first experience at 12 with morphine before his introduction to oxycodone at 15. At 21, he was revived from a potential overdose after multiple doses of Naloxone.
“I used to ask myself why did I make it. Out of all my friends and all the people that I grew up with, there’s a lot of people that I know that have died from this disease and I used to ask myself why. This moment tonight, this right here, this is the reason why,” he said.
Dallas Gay, one of the partnership’s key organizers, led a call to action toward the end of the night, with an audience including state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, and state Reps. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, and Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville.
Gay’s grandson, Jeffrey Dallas Gay Jr., is the namesake for legislation signed this year that made Naloxone available over-the-counter.
Under state and federal actions, Gay said he supports funding for treatment options and the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, as well as making the program cross state lines and limiting the pills prescribed for short-term cases.
Gay said he hopes the medical community might reduce prescriptions by 50 percent, develop alternative pain management practices and accelerate prescriber training.
For the public, Gay spoke about reducing pill usage and finding alternatives, as well as learning more about the signs of addiction and the issues surrounding opioids.
The three steps in case of an overdose are calling 911, administering Naloxone and performing basic first aid until medical services arrive.