In 2022, new records were set for drug overdose casualties in Athens, with the total deaths reaching 60.
The largest number of those deaths were attributed to fatal doses of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be legally prescribed for pain, according to Athens-Clarke police Lt. Shaun Barnett.
“We’re continually seeing the community affected by opioids and in particular fentanyl,” Barnett said.
Police are usually the first on the scene of an overdose where they find an individual unresponsive. A drug that police carry on a routine basis is Narcan, which can bring the person back to consciousness.
“In 2022, we had 127 Narcan deployments,” Barnett said, explaining that in some incidents police had to administer more than one dose to awaken the person. So far in 2023, police have deployed Narcan on 13 occasions, he said.
Athens-Clarke County Coroner Sonny Wilson is acutely familiar with drug overdose cases as he responds to those that end in death. The number of overdose deaths documented in 2023, he said, indicates the problem is not abating.
“We’ve had 14 drug-associated deaths this year and fentanyl is suspected in 10. It’s bad,” Wilson said.
The coroner predicts a similar number of deaths this year compared to 2022.
“We’ll probably have 55 plus deaths this year,” Wilson said. “How do we stop this? I don’t have a clue. I’m asked why are they killing the customer? They (drug dealers) don’t care. They’ve got people waiting in line to buy it. It doesn’t matter to the dealer whether they (addicts) die or not.”
'It's a major problem and it's snowballing'
The Georgia Department of Public Health released a report in September 2022 with data gathered from 2019 to 2021 showing the high number of drug overdose deaths is “largely driven by the presence of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.”
During those three years, fentanyl-related deaths increased by 230%, according to the report.
“It’s a major problem and it’s snowballing,” U.S. Attorney Peter Leary said when contacted at his office in Macon. “It started in Atlanta and is spreading throughout the state.”
Leary said parents should take special notice because the Public Health report shows that during the three-year period that fentanyl-related deaths of persons ages 10 to 19 increased by 800%. Total overdose deaths among those 15 to 19 involving fentanyl increased 775%.
“The biggest thing for parents to remember is that with everyone having a cell phone, they essentially have a drug dealer in their pocket,” Leary said.
“We’re seeing a lot of counterfeit pills made available on social media. Adolescents think they are ordering a couple of pills, but don’t realize they are really ordering fentanyl,” he said. “Not only do the people buying the drugs not know they are taking fentanyl, but we’re seeing by intercepted wire taps and looking through drug dealer’s phones they don’t know they have fentanyl sometimes."
A recent federal indictment led to the arrests of numerous residents of Athens connected to a fentanyl ring and those working the operation included officers from four federal agencies, one state agency and five local law enforcement agencies.
“This is very much an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Leary said about similar investigations that led to federal indictments, not only in Athens, but in the Middle District cities of Macon, Milledgeville and Albany.
The growing threat of more dangerous drugs
A new, even more dangerous drug is on the horizon.
Authorities in Florida are addressing a new drug described as 10 times more potent than fentanyl and 1,000 times more potent than morphine, according to a February report from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
The drugs are synthetic opioids using a “Nitazene compound” and nicknamed Frankenstein opioids. Moody is pushing for legislation to add these drugs to the schedule 1 controlled substances list.
In a news release, Moody said one pill of fentanyl “can” kill, but one pill of the Frankenstein pill “will” kill.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Trent Hillsman is in charge of the Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office that covers 30 northeast Georgia counties including Clarke. He said these new opioids have not been found here, yet.
“We cover a big area and we’re pretty active, but we have not come across it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not here. It’s a matter of time because the fentanyl epidemic is pretty much off the charts right now,” Hillsman said.
Fentanyl is usually found laced with other drugs like heroin and cocaine, but now officers are finding it in straight pill form, he said. The dealers who sell straight fentanyl appear primarily associated with gangs, Hillsman said.
The fentanyl problem has spread from larger cities into more rural counties like Madison County, where the drug methamphetamine has been a longtime problem.
“We’ve had way beyond our share if you look at it population wise,” said Madison County 911 Director Brennan Baird, whose office collects data on overdose calls.
In 2022 for example, he said deputies responded to 142 calls for unresponsive people, some who were unconscious and others who were dead.
There was a time when a common mix of street drugs were cocaine and heroin, Baird said, but today, many drug users are ingesting a mix of meth and fentanyl.
“When someone takes it together,” Baird said, “your body gets high really fast from the meth and then the fentanyl kicks in and your body starts bringing you down. And what happens is your body forgets to do things, like breathing.”
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Drug overdoses, mostly fentanyl, surged in 2022; trends continues