About this series
This is the second installment in an occasional series on the rise of heroin overdoses in the past few years and what is being done in Forsyth County to combat the causes at their root.
* Nationwide rise in overdoses hits close to home in Forsyth County.
* Local programs aim to educate teens, prevent overdoses.
* A firsthand experience in Forsyth County.
* As addiction increases, so must the conversation.
* Series on addiction concludes with look back
FORSYTH COUNTY — Rebekah Chambers-Samples overdosed on heroin at age 23 after being clean for a year, leaving an incurable hole in her mother’s heart.
What keeps that void empty for Paula Chambers is the knowledge that her only daughter could have been saved. Had they called 911 or administered an anti-opioid, she may still be alive, in rehab with a second chance.
Many witnesses to overdoses do not call 911 out of fear they will be arrested once cops arrive and detain anyone who is also high or has drugs or paraphernalia.
Jeremy Sharp, a member of the Georgia Overdose Prevention Group, lost a friend on his 21stbirthday from that fear.
“He was drinking and taking drugs and started to choke, so they put him in a room. They were afraid, and it took them two hours to call the cops,” Sharp said. “His girlfriend was in Alpharetta, and she called his sister — who was 14 — and said, ‘Austin isn’t breathing.’
“By the time [the cops] got there, there was nothing they could do.”
Heroin deaths have doubled from 2010-12, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while overdoses on prescription pills — opium-based narcotics like OxyContin or Percocet — have somewhat leveled since 2010.
Overdosing can happen when an addict injects a too-strong dose, as the unregulated drug is unpredictable in potency.
It can happen when someone suffers an unrelated injury and needs to feed his or her opioid addiction with heroin when prescriptions for pain pills run out.
It can happen after years of needle-sharing or on a first attempt.
Sharp was not at his friend’s party, but the seemingly avoidable death led him to join the prevention group.
It started in 2012 and is made up of people throughout Georgia who want to combat the rising number of deaths — it’s happening in every state — from heroin.
Life without fear
“Everyone is affected by this now. Everyone knows someone,” said Laurie Fugitt, a nurse and member of the grassroots group.
The group — Fugitt joined after seven friends in east Cobb County lost kids to overdose — was instrumental in advocating for House Bill 965, known as the “Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty Law.”
Under the law, which was passed in the 2014 legislative session, a person can seek medical assistance for someone else experiencing a drug overdose and know neither of them can be arrested for using or possessing an illegal substance.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, 22 states including Florida and North Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia, have enacted some form of 911 drug immunity law. The immunity is only from low-level criminal offenses, and the report must be made to law enforcement in good faith.
The caller must also remain with the overdose victim.
“I believe we had a call [last] week,” said Forsyth County Sheriff’s Maj. Rick Doyle. “The person was saved, and there were no charges brought.”
A drug that gives a second chance
Even when the Good Samaritan Law is used, emergency personnel still must respond to the scene in time.
A second part of the law allows for the distribution and use of Naloxene, a prescription that can immediately reverse the effects of a drug overdose.
Overdose occurs when opiates bind to receptor cells in the central nervous and respiratory systems. Naloxene knocks the opiates off those cells and blocks them for 30 to 90 minutes.
Georgia’s law reasons that similar Naloxene, also called Narcan, access laws have reversed more than 10,000 opioid overdoses in other states.
Naloxene is distributed by drug prevention groups or law enforcement organizations that receive a prescription and are permitted to hand them out to “lay people,” or average residents without medical training.
It’s administered in three ways, and each version is sold by a separate pharmaceutical company.
“In the hospital, it’s an IV. But in the field, it’s intramuscular injection, like a shot,” Fugitt said. “Rescue kits have two syringes because you can go back into OD after 30 to 90 minutes.”
She said this is the cheapest method for drug prevention groups, with each kit costing less than $50.
Most police departments use a nasal spray, which has a syringe that hides under a rubber stopper. She said she has heard pharmacies charge about $60 per kit.
The third product is called Evzio, which costs about $350 per box.
“It looks like a rubber stamp that you push down, and it talks [instructions] to you. It’s also an intramuscular injection, but with a retracted needle,” Fugitt said.
“Not a safety net”
So far, police at the University of Georgia, Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta and Kennesaw State University, as well as 100 officers in Atlanta Police Department Zone 1 and police in the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, Canton, Woodstock and Holly Springs are equipped with Naloxene.
They have been handed out at “The Bluff” in downtown Atlanta, a known heroin distribution center, where Rebekah Chambers-Samples died.
They have actually existed since 1996 in Europe, Fugitt said. The National Institute of Health found that there are no psychoactive or addictive qualities to provide the potential for abuse.
“It’s not a safety net. People who actively use drugs, the last thing they want is to be hit up with Narcan,” she said. “It causes immediate withdrawal. Vomiting, sweating, stomach cramps. Whatever high they were on is suddenly blown.”
She said the needles used in Naloxene devices are different than heroin syringes because they have “dead space.”
“Users don’t want syringes with that gap because it causes a backflow of blood into the dead space after you inject. Then the next user will inject the other person’s blood,” she said.
The prescription includes a reporting procedure for when a kit is used.
Fugitt said there have been 212 reported overdose reversals by lay people and 17 by law enforcement in Georgia since the law’s inception.
Doyle said the Forsyth sheriff’s office is in the early stages of obtaining Naloxene.
It has priced the product and needs to determine whether deputies, the fire department or emergency services personnel would be equipped.
“We’d definitely like to have it by the end of the year,” he said.
In the meantime, the sheriff’s office is aiming to prevent young adults from doing drugs in the first place through education.
“You can’t rehab a dead addict,” Fugitt said. “You have to give them a chance at recovery. People do recover, but they’ve got to be breathing to have a shot at it.”