About this series
This is the sixth and final installment in a yearlong 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.
* As addiction increases, so must the conversation.
FORSYTH COUNTY — Rebekah Chambers-Samples overdosed the first time she used heroin after her cleanest year since becoming addicted at 17. She was 23.
Jeremy Sharp’s friend died on his 21stbirthday because others were too scared to call 911 when he started choking.
Mindy Morrow Watkins’s 16-year-old son transitioned from his prescribed pain medication to heroin after he was injured in a four-wheeler accident.
Every story is different. The way they became addicted. How they climbed out of the abyss. The impact their deaths had on their families when they couldn’t release themselves from heroin’s hold.
More people than ever before are dying from heroin across the country. With that increase, the Forsyth County News has tried throughout the year to raise awareness of the epidemic, the reasons behind it and ways people in Forsyth and Georgia are fighting overdoses and the stigma of addiction. Fighting, quite literally, for their families’ lives.
In this final installment, we reflect on the journey before looking to a new year that hopefully comes with better endings that many parents have endured.
‘It doesn’t discriminate’
Overdosing on opioid analgesics — opium-based pain pills like Percocet and hydrocodone — still kills more people annually than heroin and cocaine combined.
However, while drug-poisoning deaths due to pills have somewhat leveled since 2010, heroin deaths doubled from 2010 to ’12, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Black 45- through 64-year-olds recorded the highest death rate involving heroin nationwide in 2000, according to the CDC. By 2013, white 18- through 44-year-olds held that distinction.
“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 cost of addiction
According to an undercover narcotics agent for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, OxyContin used to sell for $25 a pill, which can be cut into four “hits.”
But prices skyrocketed when federal regulations cracked down on illegal pill rings a few years ago. Now one pill costs around $80.
Heroin, on the other hand, costs about $20 for a one-gram hit, he said. It’s easier to find and gives the same high.
“Burglaries and narcotics are usually associated. They go hand in hand because people need to supply their addiction,” said Forsyth County Sheriff’s Maj. Rick Doyle.
Chambers-Samples and her husband paid $300 a day to fund their habit, her mother said.
“I would steal from my family. My little brother. One time I even stole the flat screen from my parents’ living room,” said Chris Stevens, a former addict.
“It’s almost like an out-of-body experience because I knew what I was doing, but I couldn’t stop myself from stealing anything I could get my hands on from friends, from family.”
Addiction is a grip that never truly releases its hold and is intangible from the outside.
“It’s like being trapped. Every day you know it’s wrong. You know you’re going to end up dead, especially with this drug, and you do it anyway,” Stevens said.
“There were countless times I would be driving, telling myself I wouldn’t do this anymore. And I would pull up to a drug dealer’s house bawling because I couldn’t control it.”
A life-saving law
Losing a child to overdose is inconsolable for some parents because they know the death was preventable.
Jeremy Sharp’s friend died as others stood by. They were scared of being arrested, so they didn’t call 911 for two hours.
Sharp is a member of the Georgia Overdose Prevention Group, a grassroots organization of mothers, nurses and friends that was instrumental in 2014 in advocating for House Bill 965, known as the Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty Law.
Under the law, a person can seek medical care for anyone experiencing a drug overdose without the risk that either of them will be arrested for using or possessing drugs or paraphernalia.
The law also made Naloxene, or Narcan, an injection or nasal spray that reverses the effects of an overdose, accessible to drug prevention groups and law enforcement agencies that can both use and hand out kits to parents, users and friends.
The Forsyth sheriff’s office is in final stages of securing kits for deputies to carry.
“It’s not a safety net. People who actively use drugs, the last thing they want is to be hit up with Narcan,” said Laurie Fugitt, a nurse and member of the prevention group. “It causes immediate withdrawal … whatever high they were on is suddenly blown.”
Prevention, intervention and treatment
Edward Bailey, executive director of No Longer Bound in Forsyth, said combatting addiction requires a three-pronged approach: prevention, intervention and treatment.
The Teen Interception Program was initiated this year by Forsyth County Sheriff’s Cpl. Page Cash to educate teens about the effects of drugs.
“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.
During the free seven-week program, participants hear testimonials, visit Atlanta’s homeless, tour a funeral home and learn about the 911 Medical Amnesty Law.
‘It’s not just you’
Though prevention and intervention are vital, 900,000 Georgians are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Less than 3 percent will get treatment.
Bailey sees about 82 men each year come to No Longer Bound, a faith-based residential regeneration program for men. Last year, about 75 percent graduated.
“A stigma is that you’re the only one. That there’s something wrong with you or you’re a worse person because of this addiction,” he said. “When you’re brave enough to bring that out and start talking about it, you realize it’s not just you.”
The battle may be grueling, but those in the center of the fight want addicts to know it can be won.
Parents who have buried children were the advocates behind HB 965.
TIP has kept people out of jail and opened conversation between parents and their teenagers.
Chris Stevens is 25 and has a 1-year-old son with a daughter on the way. He has been clean for two years.
Bailey is a product of the program he now leads.
“I was a strung-out meth addict, and I didn’t believe there was hope,” he said. “You don’t have to give up. There is something there for you.
“And I can tell you that, having been on both sides, freedom is a lot better.”