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Rash of overdoses shows heroin could be gaining foothold in suburbs

OpioidsAppendix-- graphs on page 6-6


On December 15th, a Pickens deputy used his issued naloxone injector to revive an overdose victim, likely saving his life. On December 16 this happened again with another deputy using the voice-prompts with the Evzio opiod emergency injection kit to bring around someone who had overdosed.

Deputies here, have been carrying Narcan (naloxone) injection kits since 2016 and have three uses where someone who had overdosed was brought back to consciousness, preventing what could have been three overdose deaths. 

In the past month another two people (brothers) both overdosed on the same day with one brother being dropped off at the Hinton Fire Department unresponsive and the second brother found unresponsive in the parking lot of the QuikTrip on Highway 515. Both survived after being taken to the hospital.

These local overdoses on heroin and opioids are part of what has been called a national epidemic.

According to a 2017 paper from the Georgia Prevention Project, “Opioid overdoses - including prescription opioids and heroin - kill 78 people daily. This number has quadrupled since 1999. In 2015 alone, opioids were involved in over 28,470 deaths.” 

In Georgia, opioid overdose deaths increased tenfold to 549 deaths between 1999 and 2014.

Captain April Killian is largely responsible for seeing that all Pickens deputies are trained and equipped with the drugs to handle opioid overdoses. 

Killian said in the cases where deputies used the injectors, the victims were “fading. Their pulses were gone. They were turning blue.” In one of the two cases the victim returned to full consciousness and was alert when loaded on the ambulance. In the other case, the person was not fully-conscious but later came around to the point he was released the following day from the ER to a rehab facility.

Sheriff spokesman Kris Stancil credited Killian as “working like crazy” to procure a grant to equip all officers, including not just road patrol but probation, parole, jail officers, with the injection kits. Killian also leads the training, which lasts about an hour. 

The kits, which did not cost local taxpayers anything, are small, self-contained boxes. When opened there is a timed voice recording instructing the user on what they need to do, which is basically give the unresponsive person a jab in the leg with it.

In both recent cases, the unresponsive person required two injections to show improvement. Killian said they are designed to address opioid problems, but will not make other medical condition worse if it turns out the person is non-responsive for something besides an opioid overdose. 

Killian said she developed a passion for equipping first responders with naxolone after working as an addiction counselor with the local accountability and veterans’ courts. “Addicts can be some of the best people, but just people who have a problem. If they would come forward, there are so many resources that could help them.”

She said helping them in the court program “is the most rewarding job in the world.”

Killian, who also heads up the Criminal Investigation Division, believes that Pickens County may be on the verge of seeing more overdoses tied to opioids.

Initially, the opioid problem was tied to prescription pills like oxycontin, oxycodone and hydrocodone. These pills are often prescribed for problems like bad backs.

Killian and Stancil both said people who are addicted to the painkillers often start with a legitimate problem or surgery or suffer from a true chronic pain condition. The Georgia Prevention Project White Paper stated, “Use of opioids for more than a short period
of time leads to tolerance and physical and psychological dependence. This means opioid users must take larger doses of opioids over time to achieve the same effect.”

Killian said opioids are particularly addictive and it is very hard to break that addiction. “If you ever see someone suffer opioid withdrawal, it’s horrible,” she said. “They won’t die but they may wish they would.”

Particularly dangerous are painkillers that include fentanyl and carfentanil, which are even stronger and more likely to cause overdose problems. 

Georgia has worked to tighten up regulation on pain clinics and to prevent “doctor shopping” - going from one doctor to another getting pain killers. Killian said it is becoming more difficult to get pills from multiple sources at the same time. An investigation conducted by the Pickens sheriff’s office of a pain clinic that formerly operated in the county showed that they didn’t prescribe any patient an illegal number of pills but also probably weren’t checking thoroughly to see if the patient was visiting other pain clinics or doctors, Killian said.

Among the new laws Georgia enacted prevents pain clinics from seeing patients who don’t live in their general area. Formerly pain pill takers would drive from several states away and stop at numerous clinics along the route.

Getting a large supply of pills and then taking some and selling others to pay for them is a common form of this type of drug trade.

While successful to some extent, the state crack down on legitimate avenues of the pills has given rise to an increase in heroin use across the metro area and it’s spreading north.

Killian said heroin has turned up in a few cases in Pickens County and from their intelligence sources they know it is here. It was involved in one of the two recent overdoses that the deputies treated.

“I think we will see an increase in heroin as a trend [around the country],” Killian said. “It is starting to hit the suburbs. I am shocked we have not already seen more.”

Killian and Stancil said heroin and opioid problems reach across all demographics, except thus far they haven’t seen evidence of opioid or heroin use among teens in the local schools.

“It hits the doctor, lawyer as well as the construction worker and waitress,” said Kilian. “There are no barriers; everyone is susceptible.”

According to Killian, when people, some who have legitimate prescriptions, suddenly can’t get their supply of prescriptions, they will turn to heroin.

At this point, sheriff’s office sources indicate there is not much heroin dealing inside the county. Their information indicates that most people buying it are either travelling to Atlanta or know someone who goes to Atlanta for it.

Unlike most drug stories, Killian and Stancil said it’s hard to give signs and symptoms or advice if you suspect someone is abusing opioids due to the crossover with legitimate medical conditions – assuming they are getting them with valid prescriptions. Stancil said it’s impossible to say if someone is taking too much without a doctor knowing if there is chronic pain or a terminal condition that is being treated with the painkillers. He said the threshold for longtime users, such as a person with numerous back surgeries, also makes it hard to tell what they should be taking. For all these reasons, the first conversation should be with the doctor.

But, Killian said for any addiction, personality changes (lying, stealing to pay for pills), physical changes, mood swings are clearly signs that something is wrong and help is needed.

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