It’s so much more than a national problem.
More than 33,000 Americans — 91 a day — died last year from opioid overdoses according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Seventy-two of those deaths occurred in Bartow County, said coroner Joel Guyton.
“We recorded 146 opioid overdoses in the county last year,” he said. “Seventy-two didn’t survive.”
Opioids are powerful pain-reducing medications prescribed by physicians to help manage chronic or extreme pain when used properly. But when misused or abused, they may cause serious harm, including addiction, overdose and death.
The illegal use of these prescription painkillers has decreased according to Cartersville Police Lt. and Drug Task Force member Derek Bentley, but the subsequent shortage of the drugs has forced addicts to look elsewhere to feed their habit.
And their desperation often leads to death.
“Over the last five or six years, we have seen a rise from opiate-based prescription pill usage to heroin,” Bentley said. “And now we have moved into synthetic opiates such as fentanyl.”
Fentanyl is the most dangerous of the synthetic opioids.
“Much of the fentanyl entering Bartow County comes from Mexican drug cartels,” said Maj. Jeff Dalman, the Criminal Investigations Division Commander. “They cook the heroin in Mexican labs and mix it with fentanyl smuggled in from China. It makes it cheaper to produce and adds a little more high to the product. Then, they smuggle it to markets in the U.S.”
And one of the most-preferred routes for transporting illicit drugs is right down Interstate Highway 75 through Bartow County.
“Interstate 75 is the preferred corridor for smuggling drugs into the southeast, especially to south Florida,” Dalman said. “Two years ago, the largest opioid bust in U.S. history — 40 kilos — was made near the Main Street exit.”
The Mexican product is manufactured with little concern for consistency, so doses may vary widely in strength.
One dose may result in a pleasant high while the next dose may be lethal.
“It’s definitely more potent than heroin,” Bentley said. “If it’s laced with fentanyl, they are definitely getting more into their system.”
“It takes very little fentanyl to shut your body down,” Dalman said. “It just stops your heart.”
Fentanyl is so dangerous that Dalman no longer allows Cartersville officers to field test it.
“It comes in a powder form,” he said, “and it is so toxic, it can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin with fatal results.”
Nothing illustrates the toxicity of this drug better than the story of 10-year-old Alton Banks who died on June 23 from an overdose of fentanyl mixed with heroin.
His friends said he had gone swimming earlier that day at a public pool and had swallowed some water. Hours later, he began vomiting, but his mother, although she was concerned, didn’t realize that her son was overdosing. Paramedics were eventually called and he was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Police suspect that sometime between Alton’s visit to the pool and his walk home afterward, the boy came into contact with fentanyl.
How the drug got into Alton’s system remains a mystery, but it is an example of how even an innocent child can fall victim.
To try to reduce the number of fatal overdoses, Cartersville Police officers carry Narcan, a nasal spray containing naloxone hydrochloride, a medication that can stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose by shutting off the receptors in the brain.
“Our officers used Narcan on 12 opioid overdose patients last year and saved 10 of them,” CPD chief Frank McCann said proudly.
None of the officers interviewed said they expect the situation to improve anytime soon.
“Typically, if you slow down the pill problem, the heroin problem arises,” Bentley said. “When you slow down the heroin problem, then the fentanyl problem arises. That’s what we are seeing in Cartersville. We are at the point now where we have seized more fentanyl than any other opiate-based drug.”