About this series
This is the fifth 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.
* Law ensures amnesty for 911 calls, provides overdose reversal drug.
* Local programs aim to educate teens, prevent overdoses.
* A firsthand experience in Forsyth County.
* Series on addiction concludes with look back
FORSYTH COUNTY — Linda and her 17-year-old son spent seven Tuesdays together learning about a future she hopes never comes to pass. Not talking so much as seeing.
They toured jail. They visited a bridge in Atlanta notorious for homeless drug users. They saw the workings of a funeral home.
They experienced these places through the Teen Interception Program, or TIP, a prevention-through-education class run by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
The program is part of a campaign in Forsyth to fight the trend throughout the metro Atlanta area — and nation — of an increasing number of people dying from heroin and drug overdoses.
“It’s for parents who want to expose their children and themselves to certain things. It’s an awareness program,” she said. “They said if you find yourself involved with drugs, you will either end up dead, homeless or in jail.”
Drug overdoses have outpaced vehicle collisions as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, according to Georgia Overdose Prevention.
Overdosing on prescription pills still causes more deaths annually than heroin and cocaine combined. However, while drug-poisoning deaths due to opioid analgesics — opium-based narcotics like OxyContin and hydrocodone — have started to level off since 2010, heroin deaths have doubled from 2010 to ’12, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“People don’t just decide one day to shoot up heroin,” Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper said.
Prescription opioid analgesics and heroin give the same high.
So when illegal supplies of pills plummeted a few years ago after federal regulations started battling black market pill mills, cartels began to push out more heroin.
It’s now cheaper and more available than pills. And stronger than ever.
According to StopHeroin.org, heroin was 5 percent pure in the 1970s. The rest was filler material like starch and sugar.
Today, users are buying $20 doses of a drug that is 80 percent pure, and the filler material is often being replaced with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate analgesic similar to — but more potent than — morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Linda’s son is not dead. Or homeless. Or in jail. He does not even use heroin, as far as she knows. He is, however, not on her preferred path.
When he was expelled from West Forsyth High in April for skipping school, breaking into cars and smoking pot, a judge mandated he take the TIP class.
“I didn’t want to go. We had to sign papers to get into it, and we had to write about why we should be in the program,” he said. “I wrote about why I didn’t feel like I needed it.”
“The face of addiction has changed”
Linda, whose real name is not being used in order to protect her identity, said the funeral home made the biggest impact on her.
Dave Laws has also been in a funeral home to see how drugs can affect someone’s life.
His visit took place two years ago when he buried his 17-year-old daughter.
Laura Hope Laws started experimenting with marijuana when she was 13 or 14, her father said. She did not progress to opiates until she was a freshman in high school.
She was prescribed pain medication after suffering a jaw injury while playing for the North Atlanta High School soccer team.
“She wasn’t an outcast or withdrawn. She was outgoing and really very popular,” Laws said. “We were a regular family, we thought, that had some issues. But I don’t think we fell short as parents … It can happen to anybody. We’re just like our neighbors. The face of addiction has changed.”
Non-Hispanic black persons aged 45-64 died from heroin at the highest rate in 2000, two per 100,000, according to the CDC. In 2013, non-Hispanic white persons aged 18-44 had the highest rate — seven per 100,000.
According to StopHeroin.org, 75 percent of users live in suburban communities.
Laws said his daughter had recently finished a 30-day program.
“And she made a mistake, and it proved to be fatal. A mix of cocaine and morphine overdose with alcohol,” he said. “If you’re not vigilant … the disease is doing pushups out in the parking lot waiting for you to have a weak moment.”
“I didn’t believe there was hope”
There are 900,000 Georgians addicted to drugs or alcohol. Less than 3 percent will get treatment.
Proof of the presence of drugs in Forsyth County is the fact that No Longer Bound has been serving men here since 1983.
The nonprofit is a faith-based residential regeneration program that helps male participants come out of their addictions to drugs and alcohol. About 82 men come each year.
Last year, the program saw a 75 percent graduation rate.
“I’m a product of the program. I went through it myself. I was a strung-out meth addict, and I didn’t believe there was hope,” said Edward Bailey, executive director. “So I can tell somebody first hand after having lived it myself that there’s hope.
“You don’t have to give up. There is something there for you. And I can tell you that, having been on both sides of that, freedom is a lot better.”
“It opened up conversation”
As recovery programs like No Longer Bound continue their efforts, prevention and education groups work to spread awareness.
Georgia Overdose Prevention was the grassroots group that brought House Bill 965 to the Georgia Assembly in 2014.
With its passage, the state now has access to Naloxone, an opioid-overdose reversal drug that has already saved 334 lives in the metro Atlanta area, Laws said.
Laws helped start the group in response to his daughter’s death.
HB 965 also has an amnesty law that provides limited immunity from being arrested for possessing controlled substances and marijuana for both a person who calls 911 and the person overdosing.
The TIP classes, which dedicated an entire class to HB 965, did not serve as a scared straight lesson to Linda’s son. He did say he “liked the way it was run.”
“Cpl. [Page] Cash is amazing. There couldn’t be a better person running the program,” he said. “At the end of the program they told us to stand up and say what we learned. I said I learned that not all cops are out to get you or not out to put you in jail.”
If it did not have an immediate, live-altering impact on him, maybe it was a start. Maybe he took away an idea that those fighting heron’s hold on their children hope spreads faster than the drug.
“It opened up conversation. Broke the ice for it,” he said. “It makes it easier to talk about, but we don’t go out of our way to. But we’re not really avoiding the conversation anymore.”