Methadone clinics in northwest Georgia draw addicts across state lines


The sign outside a northwest Georgia clinic caught Josh Harrison’s attention. Pay only $1 a day to kick your drug habit, it advertised.

It was a steal compared with what Harrison had been paying at another clinic — 10 times more, cash — for the methadone he hoped would finally help him escape the Xanax addiction that had taken over his life. Instead, he simply became hooked on the methadone — a cheaper drug that’s more widely available in Georgia than other Southern states and has ensnared thousands of addicts like Harrison.

“That’s how they did it. They run a special. For the first 30 days, it’s $1 a day and after that it’s $11,” said Harrison, who had been taking Xanax since he was 15 for obsessive compulsive disorder but, at 37, is now sober. “That’s just a scam to get people hooked on methadone.”

NEW: Join the AJC’s Crime & Safety Facebook group for the latest news

VIDEO: What is methadone?

Northwest Georgia, along the Tennessee and Alabama borders, is prime territory for narcotics treatment centers, commonly known as methadone clinics, where there are more such facilities per person than any other region of the state.

The four-county region has five clinics compared with just 12 in the entire state of Tennessee and 20 in all of Alabama. Georgia is home to 72 clinics in all — the easier access drawing addicts from out of state on a daily basis, usually before dawn, for methadone treatment. That’s particularly true in the northwest where officials say two out of three patients are from out of state.

“The laws in Georgia were much more lax than surrounding states and the location of our county put us close to Tennessee and Alabama,” said Ringgold Mayor Nick Millwood. “That made us a key spot and it was becoming a problem. … They are selling something that is just as addictive as something they are trying to get folks off of.”

A new law that took effect in May aims to change that by dividing the state into 49 regions and limiting each to no more than four methadone clinics.

“At the time when we did the research, we had only two clinics (in Gwinnett County),” said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, one of the law’s sponsors, adding that more clinics began moving in after they found out the state would be cracking down.

RELATED: Death toll could rise in opioid overdose outbreak in middle Georgia

IN-DEPTH: Is Georgia overdosing?

“All they do is transfer people addicted to opioids to the methadone,” Unterman said. “You don’t need to be on methadone for the rest of your life.”

But getting the rules in place and hiring enough staff to enforce them takes time, according to the state’s health agency. And those areas that already have more than four methadone facilities will be “grandfathered” in and can stay.

An addictive treatment for addicts?

Methadone, which itself is an opioid painkiller, has been a less expensive treatment for addiction for four decades. But it too is addictive.

“Methadone is a money maker,” said Don Hicks, chief detective with the Dade County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s like a Kool-Aid stand. You can’t give a drug addict drugs so he’ll get well.”

Because it takes longer for the body to process methadone — as much as six times longer than hydrocodone and up to three times longer than OxyContin and oxycodone — it is used to prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. But the slow-acting nature of methadone also makes it easy for users to take too much, officials say.

It can be dangerous if the dosages are not closely monitored, especially if a user takes another narcotic while on methadone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,301 people died of methadone overdoses in 2015, the most recent data available.

In Georgia last year, 91 people who died of overdoses had methadone in their system, Georgia Bureau of Investigation data shows. And there have been 15 so far in 2017, including three in northwest Georgia.

GBI spokesman Bahan Rich said methadone was found in one out of every eight drug-related deaths.

But usually there are other drugs involved, said Johnny Gray, the coroner of Dade County, which has 16,000 residents and one methadone clinic.

For example, in June, two brothers were hospitalized after overdosing. When they returned home the next morning, they found their mother dead.

“They (all) had methadone in their systems, but they had also (overdosed) on other things,” Gray said. “The stuff people are playing with today will kill you.”

‘A dark zone’

Catoosa County in the northwest has a population of 66,000 and three methadone clinics.

“It’s unique to this area because we’re in a dark zone of Georgia,” said Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander.”We’re the feather tip of Georgia and next to Tennessee.”

In comparison, DeKalb and Cobb counties, about two hours away, each have two methadone clinics. And in Fulton, the state’s most populous county that is home to more than 1 million people, there are four. Only Gwinnett County, with just shy of 1 million residents, has more methadone clinics than any other region with nine.

Rip Connell, who runs Private Clinic North in Rossville, said it takes years to get off methadone and requires counseling and close monitoring by doctors.

Connell said one client had been coming to his clinic since 1998 and it was only three years ago she began the process of tapering off the methadone.

Still, he said, “93 percent of our patients are illicit-drug free within the first 30 days.”

Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk said Connell’s clinic is well-run but that is not necessarily the case with others in the area. “There’s good and bad,” Sisk said.

Hullander said some do little monitoring once they hand out methadone dosages. She has seen long lines form outside some of the clinics in the area hours before dawn, people trying to get their daily doses before work.

Connell said his staff includes two doctors, a physician’s assistant, six nurses and 18 certified substance abuse counselors who treat about 700 clients. He said anyone who comes to the Private Clinic must have a job unless there is a reason they cannot work. Counseling and drug testing are key parts of the program.

‘Methadone was the worst’

The new law targeted at reining in the explosion of methadone clinics in Georgia may have technically gone into effect in May, but it may be months longer until it actually gets enforced.

The Department of Community Health is still “finalizing the rules” with an eye toward “open enrollment” for new clinics in December, spokeswoman Fiona Roberts said. The agency is also still looking at staffing needs.

And even then, law enforcement and coroners in the northwest and other regions with more than four clinics will still have to deal with the same number of facilities like the one Harrison found himself drawn too by the promise of a cheap high.

Harrison admits first turning to methadone mostly as an alternative way to get high. Soon it became “a whole new battle,” he said.

MORE: What the painkillers took from Georgia family

“After the first dose, I went high like methamphetamine. A rush — sweating, energy. I don’t think that high ever went away,” he said.

Withdrawal from a methadone addiction is just as bad as with other drugs, Harrison said. He said he weaned himself off methadone on his own after taking it for two years because the clinic had been increasing his dosages and there had been no discussions of getting him off the drug.

But, Harrison said, “of all the drugs I’ve been on, methadone was the worst. The withdrawal was the worst — sweats, shakes, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea that lasted about three months. It was a nightmare.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Marietta superintendent on Parkland: ‘Our children have become numb’
Marietta superintendent on Parkland: ‘Our children have become numb’

Marietta’s superintendent Grant Rivera appeared on the “HLN Weekend Express” program this weekend to describe how to talk to children about tragedy and what he’s doing locally. His appearance came days after 14 students and three school staff were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by expelled...
12-year-old sister of murder victim reported missing in Florida 
12-year-old sister of murder victim reported missing in Florida 

Police in Florida are searching for a 12-year-old girl who was reported missing early Monday, seven months after her sister went missing and was found dead several days later, the Bradenton Herald reported. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said Jalyssa Shannon left her home around 9 p.m. Sunday. Her mother, Michelle Mosley, called deputies...
Teen arrested in connection with Instagram death threat aimed at S. Florida school
Teen arrested in connection with Instagram death threat aimed at S. Florida school

A 15-year-old Florida boy was arrested after posting a message on Instagram threatening to kill people at several Broward County schools, authorities said.  Just after midnight Friday, Broward Sheriff's Office detectives were notified about the online post from a Fort Lauderdale teen. He posted it one day after 17 people were killed during a mass...
DeKalb commissioners schedule hearing on high water bills
DeKalb commissioners schedule hearing on high water bills

DeKalb County commissioners will hold a rare evening meeting  on Tuesday to hear from the public about the county’s lingering issues with costly -- and often inaccurate -- water bills. At this “committee of the whole” meeting, the Board of Commissioners will hear from two advisory groups: one that is studying water billing issues...
Fairburn hosting homestead exemption workshop
Fairburn hosting homestead exemption workshop

Fairburn residents who may be eligible for a homestead exemption on their property tax are invited to attend a workshop 3 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22 or 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 24 at Fairburn City Hall Council Chambers, 56 Malone St. SW. Those who qualify for a homestead exemption from city of Fairburn Property Tax will have the taxable value...
More Stories