About this series
This is the first 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.
* Law ensures amnesty for 911 calls, provides overdose reversal drug.
* Local programs aim to educate teens, prevent overdoses.
* As addiction increases, so must the conversation.
* Series on addiction concludes with look back
FORSYTH COUNTY — One night. One fulfilled temptation, after remaining cleaner than she had been in a year.
Paula Chambers kept track of almost every move her daughter made in an effort to prevent her from falling back into her heroin addiction.
Chambers, her husband and son-in-law were working on her daughter’s application for a rehab center in north Georgia. They disabled her car. Monitored her computer use. She was sleeping in the same room as her mom, while her husband slept in a recliner outside of the door.
But the 23-year-old snuck out on Feb. 1, 2011 from her mother’s Cumming home to be picked up.
A prepaid cell phone and one trip to “The Bluff” in Atlanta near the Georgia Dome, a known heroin distribution hub.
“We are very fortunate we don’t know who found her,” Chambers said.
Rebekah Chambers-Samples is in a growing bubble of people each year across the nation who died from overdosing on heroin.
“It has a hold on you like no one can understand unless you live with an addict or you are one,” Chambers said. “Many people say it’s not affecting them, so why get involved? It’s being sold right in front of our eyes and people don’t even realize.”
Overdosing on prescription pills has historically caused thousands more deaths each year than heroin. However, while drug-poisoning deaths due to opioid analgesics – opium-based narcotics like OxyContin or Percocet – has somewhat leveled since 2010, heroin deaths have doubled from 2010 through 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC.
This increase is affecting people of all ages all over the country, though the sharpest rise has been in the Midwest.
“Forsyth County is not a mecca, but we’re not immune,” said Forsyth County Sheriff’s Maj. Rick Doyle.
Recent victims of heroin overdoses in Forsyth County ranged in age from 20 to 51. According to the CDC, black 45- through 64-year-olds had the highest rate of deaths involving heroin nationwide in 2000, but white 18- through 44-year-olds had the highest rate in 2013.
“It’s fluid between counties,” Doyle said. “Burglaries and narcotics are usually associated. They go hand-in-hand because people need to supply their addiction.”
“We honestly had no idea”
But how are more and more people getting addicted to heroin in the first place? It’s easier than someone who hasn’t been involved may think.
Rebekah Chambers-Samples struggled with addiction since she was 17, and she and her husband used to pay $300 a day to fund their habit.
“It’s a disease just like cancer,” her mother said. “She was expecting a baby girl but lost it at six months. From there, things spiraled. Her husband got on pain pills and then got into heroin … And the grief of losing Lilly.
“We honestly had no idea that they were using. We were mind boggled when she sat in our living room and told us they were addicts.”
The gateway is not always that gradual. Sometimes the entrance slams open, inviting and unavoidable.
“Someone may get a knee injury or shoulder surgery, and they’re prescribed pain meds, and they get hooked on ‘Oxys’ or Percocet,” Doyle said. “When the injury and the prescription go away, they need to fill their addiction.”
“Prescription drugs are tied with heroin,” said Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper. “Now prescription drugs are more expensive and the supply of heroin from Mexico is cheaper.”
Federal regulations started clamping down on prescription pills – especially opioid analgesics – a few years ago, he said, skyrocketing black market prices.
So heroin, which gives the same type of high but feeds the same type of addiction, was the next-best alternative.
OxyContin used to be around $25 a pill, which can be cut into up to four “hits,” according to an undercover narcotics agent for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
Now they’re around $80 each.
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.
“It’s not a regulated drug, so the same dosages can have different potencies,” Doyle said. “And we can’t tell what [distributors] are cutting it with or how many times it’s been cut, so who knows what’s in there.”
He said he recently saw the aftermath of an overdose where there was still heroin in the syringe.
“It was so strong,” Doyle said, “he couldn’t even finish the hit.”
Nothing they could do?
Suicides and traffic fatalities still cause more deaths than heroin, but a major problem with combatting overdoses is the absence of a centralized reporting system to know what law enforcement agencies and drug prevention groups are up against.
“There’s no mechanism in the state to track those numbers,” Piper said. “It’s impacting younger folks from anecdotal evidence. From an enforcement side, we have seen an uptick in the past three to four years.”
“The stats are skewed because any committee will say look at the Attorney General’s website, or the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or a narcotics agency,” said Jeremy Sharp, a member of the Georgia Overdose Prevention Group.
According to information Sharp pulled from the Georgia Department of Public Health, there were 1,265 traffic fatalities and 300 drug overdose deaths in Georgia in 1999. In 2005, those numbers increased to 1,568 and 670, respectively.
By 2011, there were 1,248 motor vehicle deaths and 1,064 fatal overdoses.
“[They] don’t include the metro area in their official stats for press releases,” Sharp said.
Overdoses in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry and Rockdale counties were not reported in any official information available to the public. Those counties make up roughly 38 percent of the state population, he estimated.
And that report included any drug. There are no breakdowns for heroin or by county.
Regardless of the numbers, prevention should be the goal, Sharp said. He is a student at the University of North Georgia, where a friend overdosed.
“It was his 21st birthday,” he said. “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. 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.”
What if medicine could immediately reverse the effects of an overdose? What if it didn’t have addictive qualities and could be administered in the field by a family member or friend? Would it help to have a law that protected the victim and person who calls 911 from being arrested for using or having drugs?
Whoever was with Rebekah Chambers-Samples didn’t call 911 either, her mom said. They put a cloth on her head to cool her down and left.
“She was my baby. My only daughter. There’s just a void now that nothing will fill,” Chambers said. “Education needs to start earlier. It needs to not be glorified. If it saves one life, it’s worth it.”