About this series
This is the third 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.
* A firsthand experience in Forsyth County.
* As addiction increases, so must the conversation.
* Series on addiction concludes with look back
FORSYTH COUNTY – Mindy Morrow Watkins’s son was injured in a four-wheeler accident when he was 16. He had been smoking pot for one or two years but had not tried anything more serious. He was in school. He played soccer, football.
When his prescription pain pills ran out from the accident, he felt a pull to stay high.
“When it happened to my family, I knew nothing about heroin,” said Watkins, a public school teacher in Forsyth County. “It was something that made me think of a film noir movie or the back alleys of New York. I was just absolutely knocked to my knees.”
The progression from doctor-prescribed medication to being a 19-year-old heroin addict may seem drastic, but Watkins said it is the “common thread” in a recent national rise of heroin use and overdoses.
Overdosing on prescription pills has historically – and still does – cause thousands more deaths annually than heroin. However, while drug-poisoning deaths due to opioid analgesics – opium-based narcotics like Percocet and OxyContin – has somewhat leveled since 2010, heroin deaths have doubled from 2010 through 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
According to StopHeroin.org, 65 percent of users enter addiction with a prescription opioid before transitioning to heroin.
“Users call it the black hole,” Watkins said. “It knows no boundaries, has no socioeconomic lines. It takes all prisoners. It doesn’t discriminate, and if it’s not treated and maintained, it will take your life.”
The slope from pills to heroin
Federal regulations started battling black market prescription pills a few years ago, said Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper. Especially opioid analgesics.
Illegal supplies of pills plummeted. Prices skyrocketed. But then people turned to heroin because it gives the same type of high.
OxyContin used to be around $25 a pill, which can be cut into four “hits,” according to an undercover narcotics agent for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
One pill now costs around $80.
Heroin costs about $20 for a one-gram hit, he said, and is much easier to find.
Issues compound from the unpredictable potency in each hit.
Heroin was about 5 percent pure in the ‘70s. The rest was filler material, like sugar or starch, according to StopHeroin.
Users are now purchasing heroin that is 80 percent pure.
Also, instead of being cut with filler material, batches can be laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate analgesic similar to, but more potent than, morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
While the increase in overdoses is affecting people of all ages throughout the nation – more in the Midwest – a spotlight, dim but slowing growing, shines on the number of teenagers gaining access to the illegal, unregulated drug.
Watkins said she knows of five overdose deaths since Thanksgiving. That was not confirmed by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
Her son is still alive, currently in a treatment facility to fight his addiction. His name has been withheld to protect his privacy.
“He’s my only child,” Watkins said. “He tells me all the time he doesn’t know how he’ll ever be normal again.”
Local prevention and education efforts
Watkins said one of her son’s friends died because his friends put him in the shower when he overdosed instead of calling 911. They were scared of being arrested.
A goal of the Teen Interception Program, a new initiative developed and run by Page Cash at the sheriff’s office, is to educate teens about the effects of drugs and to provide them preventative – potentially life-saving – resources.
She reviews the 911 Good Samaritan Law that protects individuals from arrest for possessing or being on drugs or alcohol if they call 911 to obtain help due to someone overdosing.
She brings in testimonials. Both success stories and mothers who have lost children.
She takes them to visit the homeless in Atlanta and to tour a funeral home.
“This is not a scared straight program. I’m not that type of person or officer to scream at people, but I’ll show them the possibilities of what can happen if they make bad decisions,” Cash said.
The free seven-week program held its first class this spring with 16 court-ordered students aged 13-17. There’s still space in the voluntary September class.
“Some were just doing [drugs] because they wanted to and had the money,” Cash said. “Some have horrible, horrible lives. Their parents are doing it. They have no role models and not really even a way out.
“The biggest percentage is peer pressure.”
The sheriff’s office paid for the program, said Cash, who has been with the agency for eight years.
“I would have parents saying, ‘Can you help me?’ and we had nothing, and it bothered me and weighed on my heart,” Cash said. “I talked to Sheriff Piper about it, and he said, ‘Present it to me.’ Pretty much before I got done he said yes.”
“A living nightmare”
Part of the TIP program is a parental awareness class. They are given warning signs for drug use and overdose and tips on how to identify drugs and paraphernalia.
“I would have thought it’d never happen to us, but it absolutely did,” Watkins said. “Since then, I’ve spent countless hours researching and reaching out, trying to get all the information I can to help him save his life and help educate other people. The silver lining is, I’ve come to realize, maybe God put me in this position so I can reach out and help others.”
She is an administrator on a Facebook group called The Addict’s Mom, where people can reach out to her if they need a Naloxone kit – an overdose reversal medication administered in the field by a shot or nasal spray.
Georgia approved Naloxone (also called Narcan) in the same bill as the Good Samaritan Law, though many pharmacies still don’t know about it, Watkins said.
She also attends Parent Recovery Network every Thursday from 7-9 p.m. at Creekside United Methodist Church.
“The stigma is so daunting. It’s hard as a parent because you wonder whether it’s something you let happen, or if you could have changed something,” she said. “If people are real and honest, every family has been touched by some kind of illness, whether its alcoholism or substance abuse, or they know someone who has. People have to be privy to what’s going on.
“We have way too many kids dying who don’t need to be.”
Her son has been clean since Feb. 5. The road wasn’t easy, and it’s long and winding yet.
“It’s been a living nightmare. It tears families to the part at the very core. What becomes acceptable for a parent is totally out of the norm.” Watkins said. “Your dreams and hopes and aspirations for your child have to change. Mine for my child now are they he’ll live.”