JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – It has been a year since Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard spoke before the Johns Creek Chamber of Commerce about the scourge of heroin in the county and not much has changed except more are dead.
Howard returned to the chamber luncheon last Thursday to give an update on the resurgence of heroin and other opioid abuse in the county, and the situation is even grimmer than before.
The statistics that Howard brought are these:
•Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in America.
•The South has the highest death rate in the country from opioid abuse.
•Despite best efforts, the number of opioid-related deaths in Fulton County is still rising.
Opioid deaths are touching more families in North Fulton – if not personally then by acquaintanceship.
Howard gave the chamber audience a geography lesson that every heroin user in the greater Atlanta region already knows. If you want heroin you drive down to a rundown part of Atlanta known as The Bluff.
On the map, it is Atlanta’s English Avenue, but to any heroin addict within a radius of 50 miles, it is The Bluff. It is where urban blight reigns supreme despite periodic efforts at urban renewal.
“For a long time it has been a place where drug sales [openly] occur,” Howard said. “I know of parents who drive their children to The Bluff to buy drugs just so they will know their child is at least coming home safe.”
Other parents have begged Howard to keep their child in jail because they at least get treatment for addiction while they are there.
The most brutal statistic for North Fulton is 34 percent of overdose fatalities live north of the Chattahoochee. There were 113 Fulton deaths in 2015 and 121 in 2016.
In 2017 only one opioid death has been confirmed but nine more deaths are awaiting toxicology reports from the medical examiner’s office.
Howard pointed out that those deaths occurred after many first responders – such as those in Johns Creek – now carry Narcan with them. EMTs pack it as do police on patrol.
Narcan is a “miracle” antidote for overdose cases if administered in time. Opiates including heroin and prescription opioids such as oxycodone and Vicodin can cause breathing to slow and eventually stop.
Narcan can immediately reverse these effects and get the victim breathing again. If given to a person who has not taken opioids, there is no effect because there is no overdose to reverse.
What Howard came to lobby for is a comprehensive plan that recognizes opioid abuse as a health issue and the need for a plan of action to keep people from becoming addicts.
“The use of drugs has to do with the nature of society,” Howard said. “You don’t feel well? Just take a pill to feel better.”
The drug companies bombard the media, especially TV, with such ads. Although they don’t tout opioids, the message is clear. Relief is only a pill away.
Topping the list are doctors who continue to over-prescribe pain medication. Parents who do not purge their medicine cabinets of old or unneeded opioid medications make them available for teenagers to filch.
The emotional and financial costs of having an addict in the family are immense. Rarely does an addiction in the family end without a lot of immense emotional turmoil.
But Howard said he knows any comprehensive plan to deal with the opioid epidemic is not going to come from his office. It will only come when the public demands it, he said.