Georgia’s Heroin and Illicit Drug Deaths Continue to Rise

Until recently, the Peach State avoided the worst parts of the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States. Instead, cocaine and methamphetamine historically caused the most problems. Today, the story is changing. Startling trends in heroin use and fatalities have spurred the state to make a concentrated effort to limit access to the drug and provide support to those who suffer from addiction.

The Geography of the Heroin Problem in Georgia

Most people associate Atlanta, Augusta, and Savannah with the state of Georgia. Areas of Atlanta continue to house the highest concentrations of heroin use, but drug use in other areas of the state is growing rapidly. The growing area of risk is collectively known as the heroin triangle. The first point of the triangle sits immediately north of the city of Atlanta and extends up to Marietta, Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, and Johns Creek – areas that stretch roughly from west to east before drawing back down to the northern side of Atlanta.

These areas represent the very definition of suburbia. Most residents live in middle to upper-class communities, attend church, work in stable jobs, and send their children to some of the best schools available in the state. This is also where young people are dying at ever-increasing rates due to heroin and opioid addictions.

In Cobb County, where the city of Marietta is located, 306 people died of an overdose in 2016. In Fulton County (Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, and Johns Creek), 359 people died during the same year. These places located in the heroin triangle represent the highest overdose death rates recorded in county health records. According to the CDC, trends place Georgia and every other state in the nation under the scope of a notable spike in the opioid epidemic.

Officials began to recognize patterns in the epidemic as early as the late 1990s. As early as the 2000s, reporters were publishing stories about increased heroin problems in the state. Data from last few years show the epidemic continues to grow instead of slowing down.

Beyond Heroin: The Opioids Involved in Georgia’s Epidemic

In addition to heroin, the state recognizes problems with even stronger opioids. Some drug dealers cut synthetic opioids into the poppy-derived heroin they sell, while others deal solely in illicit pills. Fentanyl is far more powerful than morphine and often used to increase the potency of heroin. The drug is also transdermal. Users may absorb more than they mean to if they handle the drug without gloves and then inject, snort, or smoke it. When scientists work with it, they must take careful precautions to avoid skin contact.

Beyond Heroin: The Opioids Involved in Georgia's EpidemicA new drug known as “gray death” on the street is also targeting heroin users. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation believes the substance that looks like a concrete mix and yields a potency far greater than heroin may have caused a number of deaths in Cobb, Fulton, and other counties.

Carfentanil, another opioid added to some heroin batches, is essentially an elephant tranquilizer. The drug is even more potent than fentanyl and was not ever intended for human consumption. When emergency responders help overdose victims who have taken Carfentanil-laced heroin, they must often administer up to six times the normal dose of Naloxone (an opioid antagonist). As little as half a grain of sand of Carfentanil is enough to kill a human.

Prescription opioids abuse and heroin use represents a number of problems on their own. When users start experimenting with even stronger opioids, they put their lives at risk with as little as one dose. One dose of an unverified formula could kill new users and users with built-up tolerances alike.

From Prescription Pills to Addiction

Like other states fighting the opioid epidemic, the drugs come from many resources. At first, they may originate from a physician trying to help patients manage pain after an injury or surgical procedure. They might also come from friends or relatives who willingly hand over a few pills for recreational use. Opioids block pain receptors and release endorphins in the brain. They also slow respiration and stave off anxiety.

When the high wears off, the body’s natural opioid response may fail to work properly. The psychological and physical craving for the next dose hits; Young people and adults who experience the pulls of addiction often call it all-consuming and ever present. They will do anything to obtain more. When lying, cheating, and stealing chokes off the supplies to prescription opioids, users turn to drug dealers who offer pill mill opioids and heroin.

Drug Trafficking Pathways

Heroin in Georgia mainly comes from Mexico and South America. Traffickers come through the border and use a variety of pathways to reach the east coast. In the North, Columbus, Ohio serves as a distribution center for the East. In the South, the drugs come through Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and other states. In Georgia, the drugs typically arrive in Atlanta before making their ways into the suburbs where high school and college aged students can gain access to them. Heroin is cheaper than regulated opioids and far easier to access.

Fighting Against Heroin, Opioids in Georgia

In 2015, the state held a summit in Atlanta to discuss the burgeoning heroin problem. Nearly 200 lawmakers, health care professionals, substance abuse professionals, law enforcement officers, and educators joined together to discuss the seriousness of the problem and identify possible solutions. Heroin and other strong opioids represent the single fastest growing drug segment in the state and may soon outrun cocaine and methamphetamine usage. The majority of users in this southern state are under age 35, and many are teenagers.

The state currently recognizes an emergency services amnesty law to protect those who administer Naloxone. Universities also carry the drug to protect students at risk of overdosing. While the state has rehabilitation programs, many must wait to receive treatment for heroin addictions. Family support, community outreach, and treatment programs in- and out-of-state represent key factors in the fight against opioids in Georgia.

Read more about Drug Trends State by State on our new research page.

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