Efforts to combat heroin deaths on the rise in Fulton, metro Atlanta

Five years ago, Zack Elliott was at the forefront of an epidemic.

At 21 years old, Elliott died of a heroin overdose in May 2011. A guitar player and classical pianist, he was one of 19 people in Fulton County to die from the drug that year.

Since then, the numbers have only risen, and there were more heroin-related deaths in Fulton in 2015 than anywhere else in the state — last year, 104 people died in Fulton from using the opiates heroin or fentanyl.

DeKalb County had 33 such deaths in 2015. In Gwinnett, there were 27, with more possible as toxicology reports are finished. Cobb, which had not finished its 2015 tally, had 53 heroin deaths in 2014. Outside the metro area, there were 67 heroin deaths in 2015, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Those numbers may rise as reports are completed.

Metro Atlanta counties have taken note of the crisis, and are studying actions they can take to help mitigate the problem locally. Many have already begun issuing antidotes to overdoses to their first responders, while others are considering prioritizing treatment over incarceration and the best ways to reach students about how harmful heroin can be.

The problem is more than local. Nationally, the number of deaths has skyrocketed. More than 10,500 people died of heroin-related overdoses in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up 26 percent from 2013, and the rate of heroin-related overdoses had already quadrupled over the preceding decade.

A conference on the topic held in Atlanta last month drew President Barack Obama.

“…It’s important, and it’s costing lives, and it’s devastating communities,” Obama said at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit. “… And when you look at the staggering statistics in terms of lives lost, productivity impacted, costs to communities, but most importantly, cost to families from this epidemic of opioids abuse, it has to be something that is right up there at the top of our radar screen.”

Robin Elliott agrees, and for years after her son died from his addiction, she helped lobby the state to pass a law that would allow people who called 911 to avoid criminal consequences if they were trying to help someone who was overdosing. She’s encouraged the use of Naloxone or other, similar drugs that act as antidotes to heroin overdoses, and reports that nearly three dozen law enforcement agencies across the state now stock it. She’s handed out countless more to the friends and relatives of addicts.

Johns Creek police officers are among those who can speak to its effectiveness. The department has 65 doses of a version called Evzio, which Harper said works like an epipen and speaks instructions as it is opened. Lt. Jason Harper said its use saved two lives in the city.

“It’s unbelievably simple; it’s super easy,” he said. “It’s a pretty big deal because you know you’re giving them a second opportunity they wouldn’t have.”

» PERSONAL JOURNEYS: AJC columnist Jeff Schultz’s story about his own son’s struggle with heroin

» LEARN MORE: How many heroin and fentanyl deaths does Fulton County log each year?

» PHOTO ESSAY: Small towns grapple with heroin epidemic

In Fulton, commissioners agreed earlier this year to equip their first responders with Naloxone. It’s an early step of more that are likely to come when the county completes a plan this summer to tackle the heroin crisis.

“We’re trying to do something immediately,” said Vice Chairman Liz Hausmann. “We’re trying to get a handle on this crisis situation we find ourselves in.”

The heroin task force, established by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, kicked off a study with the goal of getting ahead of the problem before deaths further skyrocket. Hausmann said there is no time to waste.

“Lives are being shattered, families are being devastated by this,” she said. “It’s not recreational, it’s deadly.”

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said the study began a year and a half ago, when a crime summit in North Fulton turned into a conversation about rising drug use. Plans are still in the early stages, but he said the county wants to partner with the school systems to help educate students about the danger of heroin. Raising awareness of the extent of the problem is a key first step, Eaves said.

He also said the county is looking at ways to better treat addiction as an illness, rather than as a crime. The punitive way the county and the country have treated drug use in the past, he said, has not had a discernible impact reducing the problem.

“If we criminalize it, we may not realize the results we may want,” Eaves said. “All types of strategies are on the table. … I don’t think the punitive approach, the lock-‘em-up approach, is effective.”

In Gwinnett County, the medical examiner’s office now notifies police when there are heroin mortality trends to report, said Eddie Reeves, a senior supervising medical examiner’s investigator in the office. Reeves said by doing so, his office was able to help officers make a large heroin bust.

“We’re trying to get this poison off the street,” he said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette. You’re putting something in your veins and hoping you can get through to the other side and not die.”

His office and others are “doing what we can,” he said.

The issue is a region-wide problem, Reeves said, and has to be addressed as such.

The efforts are too late to help Patrick Doyle Hall, who was studying to be a health coach before he died in October, a week shy of his 30th birthday, after going in and out of rehab programs for years.

His mother, Molly Malone, said she would support any number of efforts to help save lives. Hall’s friends are planning an event Saturday to raise awareness and money to fight against addiction.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible about how he struggled,” Malone said. “We hope to make a difference.”

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