It appears more than 59,000 — perhaps as many as 65,000 — Americans died last year from drug overdoses, with opioid deaths fueling a good majority of that number. And the New York Times, which compiled those numbers, estimates that toll will rise again this year.
When you figure 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, that puts the scope of drug deaths in stark perspective.
Last week, central Georgia was in the cross-hairs of this troubling trend, when perhaps half a dozen people died overdosing on some bogus Percocet and dozens more were hospitalized.
The mass poisoning is demonstrative of the inherent dangers of drugs bought on the street, as well as the desperate lengths to which ordinary people will go to satisfy their addiction.
And it indicates the problem is firmly entrenched in Georgia and getting worse.
The opioid crisis has been on the radar for years, with ground zero being blue-collar burgs in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia — where the dying American dream is being replaced by numbing drugs.
You’ve heard the stories, that death rates are rising for middle-aged white folks with high school educations or less. They’ve been called “Deaths of Despair,” and the phenomenon even helped Donald Trump make his way to the White House.
But opioids are becoming an equal opportunity killer. Since 2010, death rates have risen for blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans aged 25 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And opioids are a big reason.
Last week’s overdose spree in central Georgia is a testament to this. Four of the six people who died are black, as were many of those hospitalized.
What was also stunning about the rash of overdoses was that several victims were in their 60s.
The Macon Telegraph spoke with Betty Jean Collins, 60, and her husband Henry Howard, 69, a retired log cutter and roofer. She said she takes meds because of pain from open heart surgery. He has back pain.
He bought 10 yellow pills from some guy. He thought they were Percocet. They cost 7 bucks a pop.
“Sometimes when you run out (of medicine), you’ll turn to the street,” Howard told the Macon paper. “But you don’t look for nobody to sell you something to kill you.”
Well, they almost did. Both husband and wife ended up in the hospital.
Not only that, her brother, Gregory Mitchell, 52, overdosed and died. Mitchell, according to family members, was an Army veteran who suffered from chronic pain. He was found in bed foaming at the mouth and gasping for air and was dead before reaching the hospital.
“Mr. Mitchell had a chronic back injury,” Bibb County Sheriff David Davis told me. “The pills ran out before the month ran out, so he went to the street. If you gotta have it, you gotta have it. So they go to the underground market and find poison instead.”
Opioids are the newest American drug problem. Back in the Seventies it was heroin. Later it was coke, then crack, then methamphetamine. And now it’s pain pills being overprescribed to an addictive population.
“It seems to be mainstream,” said Davis, a second-term sheriff who has seen all those incarnations of drug use during his 38 years at the department.
The fact that pain pills are legit — as opposed to, say, meth — makes it seem less bad to folks who would never think of going out and scoring some crack. Instead, they’re out there looking for someone else’s prescription meds, or even bootleg pills.
“There’s not the same stigma attached” as crack or meth, said the sheriff. “I think it’s a perception thing. If they have to get the pills on the market, they think it’s OK.”
In 2015, 1,307 people died of drug overdoses in Georgia, almost as many as those who died in motor vehicle wrecks — 1,345.
Compare that to 2001, when car deaths were almost three times higher than drug deaths — 1,509 to 559.
What’s changed? Opioids, mostly. In 2001 there were 243 such OD deaths in Georgia. In 2015 there were 900 deaths attributed to opioids and heroin.
“Meth will kill you more slowly; opioids will do it quickly,” said Jim Langford, executive director of the Georgia Prevention Project, an organization that this year produced a white paper titled “Prescription opioids and heroin epidemic in Georgia,” a publication that provided the facts that I quoted in the previous few paragraphs.
“The fentanyl will kill you fast; it’s a very, very powerful drug,” he said, speaking of a synthetic opioid pain medication much more deadly than heroin, which is also growing in popularity with those hooked on pain meds.
Now, I can almost hear some of you muttering something about “The Darwin Effect,” or “you dance with the devil, this is what you get.”
The trolls commenting online concerning such deaths like to say such things — unless, of course, it hits them at home.
It has hit me. I had a relative die of an OD, as did the child of a friend. I know that good people get caught up in this and lose. Lose their lives.
And Laurisa Barthen, outreach coordinator at the Georgia Council for Substance Abuse, knows firsthand that good people get caught up in such stuff. Her, for instance.
The Kennesaw State University grad started taking pain pills recreationally with friends. By the time of her graduation, she was using heroin, which is cheaper.
“I kept trying to quit but it was so physically overwhelming,” she said, summing up what a couple of million more Americans deal with daily, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
An overdose and a visit to Grady Memorial Hospital’s ER helped put her on the path to recovery.
What kept her from seeking help before things went that far?
“There’s a stigma attached, that you’re homeless under a bridge, that there’s a moral deficiency,” she said. “We have to change the perception.”
That’s needed, because next year, another 1,300 Georgians won’t be around to hear it.