As lethal as opioid abuse has been in Bartow County to this point, the death toll in the local community could be on the brink of a sharp increase due to the introduction of an extremely dangerous analgesic substance — one that is 5,000 times more potent than heroin.
“Several years ago, we started seeing heroin being cut with Fentanyl to not only increase its potency, but make it more affordable,” said Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force Deputy Commander Ryan Firth. “We’re getting information that not only is heroin being cut with Fentanyl, but we’re starting to see the introduction of carfentanil, which is supposed to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine and 100 times more potent than Fentanyl itself.”
Although Firth could not confirm that any of the opioid overdose deaths in Bartow County have been attributed to carfentanil, he nonetheless said it’s something the drug task force is greatly concerned about.
“It’s dangerous in incredibly small doses, micrograms can be extremely dangerous to the system,” he said. “When that potency is mixed with a drug that’s already dangerous by itself, it increases that risk.”
Nor is that the only Fentanyl analogue local law enforcement officials are keeping an eye on. Firth did confirm that 3-Methylfentanyl — more commonly known as China White — has been detected in the community.
“The intel does support that China White is present in Bartow County,” he said. “To the extent, I wouldn’t be able to comment.”
The Schedule I controlled substance, a derivative of alpha-Methylfentanyl, is believed to be 10-15 times more powerful than Fentanyl, and — depending on the chemical base — up to 6,000 times more potent than morphine.
Bartow County Sheriff Clark Millsap said he anticipates heroin use to remain the community’s most pressing substance abuse issue heading into the next decade.
“Over the years, I’ve seen our drug problem grow from just marijuana, then we came along with cocaine, then came methamphetamine, then came crack cocaine and now we’re circling back around to heroin because it’s so much cheaper and there’s a large supply of it coming through, not only here in Bartow County, but throughout the state of Georgia and throughout the United States,” he said. “We’re working diligently to stop as much of it coming here as possible, it’s just a flood of it. And sometimes, they get a little bit ahead of us.”
Millsap said law enforcement officials are seeing very little drug manufacturing in Bartow County at the moment.
“The meth is not made locally anymore,” he said. “There’s so many regulations, thank God, on the items that need to be bought to make meth. Unfortunately, we see an increase of drugs being brought here that are manufactured at some other location.”
“Drugs are still coming over the Southern border into the Southeast, the Southeast still remains a hubs for distribution along the eastern seaboard,” he said. “No matter what community you go to in the state of Georgia, there’s going to be an international presence.”
Geographically, Millsap said Bartow finds itself surrounded by major drug hubs in Fulton County, Whitfield County and Chattanooga.
“You’ve just got to know somebody,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to knock a huge chunk out of some of the drug dealers.”
Firth said the task force spends the majority of its time going after street-level dealers.
“Of course, we do spend a lot of time partnering with our State and federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, to identify and try to dismantle the larger groups,” he said. “And, of course, they are present in Bartow County.”
Millsap said he couldn’t single out a central location within Bartow for drug sales or distribution. “If you’ll look, we’re taking them down, not only going through the county, we’re taking them down out in the rural areas,” he said. “So there’s no real hotspot that we can define.”
Firth likewise said it’s hard to define where Bartow County’s drug hotspots are. “There are times when we target certain areas of the county,” he said. “It changes periodically.”
As for how the drug task force is pursuing drug investigation leads, Firth said he has to keep the details confidential.
“How we target drug dealers and large organizations is something I just can’t talk about,” he said.
Millsap, however, said there’s one drug supply source in Bartow County that’s accessible to virtually anyone, at anytime.
“Believe it or not, there’s still a lot of drug trafficking that happens on the internet,” he said.
THE OPIOID RESPONSE
Millsap recounted a humongous pill mill bust in Bartow County several years ago.
“We had people coming all the way from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio,” he said. “So we shut it down along with the FBI and the DEA.”
Those kinds of cases, he said, are becoming less common throughout the community.
While those regulations on pharmaceuticals have slowed Bartow’s illicit prescription pills trade, Millsap noted that heroin, Fentanyl and even cocaine continues to become more prevalent in the county.
“We’ve got a handle on some of it, but there’s always going to be those that get by,” he said.
While the task force has seen a slight decrease in cocaine seizures, Firth said heroin seizures are on the uptick.
“The opioid epidemic, for lack of a better term, began in the late ‘90s but over the last 10 years we’ve seen the increase in that abuse of painkillers significantly, and with the increased prices of the synthetic painkillers like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, as the prices of those things went up, it became more affordable to use and purchase heroin,” he said.
To address the community’s substance abuse crisis, Firth said work is underway on the creation of a local opioid crisis response initiative.
“As we go forward with it, it’s going to include, of course, law enforcement, it’s going to include public health here in the county, County and City governments will be involved,” he said. “We’re partnering with our neighboring counties and communities that have already started or may be a step or two in front of us with developing their crisis response initiatives, specifically working with members of the Cobb and Douglas departments of public health, and helping us move forward with our initiative plan.”
However, Firth said it remains to be seen how soon the initiative could officially launch.
“That’s really hard to say at this point, because so many agencies have to be involved and it’s a very multifaceted approach to include treatment and law enforcement," he said, "as well as public health and every local agency and community in the county.”
CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS
Millsap said he estimates about 65% to 75% of all arrests in Bartow County have either a direct or indirect drug-related element.
“You can see a correlation between the petty crimes and then you can also see a correlation between the felonies,” he said. “You’ve got to have money to buy drugs, and there’s where you see an increase in thefts, you see an increase in burglaries, unfortunately, sometimes you see an increase in armed robberies — entering autos is one of the biggest things, because people are leaving valuables inside a car and we have crews coming through the county that are trying to get into as many vehicles as possible.”
Millsap and Firth agreed that manpower remains an issue for both City and County law enforcement agencies.
“We could use 10 more agents in our group, and the police departments and sheriff’s office in the County, everybody could use more manpower,” Firth said.
But manpower challenges are a problem across the board, Millsap said, not only for Bartow County, but law enforcement agencies throughout Georgia and the nation.
“There is not a high supply of those who want to be law enforcement officers,” Millsap said. “We’ve got plenty of help as far as joining with FBI and our federal agencies and the GBI and our State agencies. We’ve got a lot of partnerships there, and that’s helped us a lot as far as being able to all come together to get rid of these drugs.”
From his perspective, Firth said the biggest challenge in addressing drug crimes is determining the best way to “break the cycle” of substance abuse.
“It’s finding that balance between getting treatment for those who want treatment and getting them away from the drugs and detached,” he said, “and combining that with law enforcement efforts that help to put the people away who need to be put away.”
Millsap, however, acknowledged that community resources are lacking.
“There’s not many programs that are out there due to budget cuts and things like that, the State’s had to shut down a lot of their treatment centers,” he said. “Unfortunately right now, incarceration is the main [approach] being used — if there were more resources, of course we would look into using those to try to help as many as we can, because there’s a lot of people that would probably not be addicted to drugs had they had this opportunity.”
When it comes to substance abuse treatments at the local jail, Millsap said the Bartow County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) does have counselors available, as well as medical staff.
“I can’t force anything on any inmate here, but if they will ask and we have that available to them, we’ll be more than happy to provide them with any type of help that we can give them,” he said.
He said the BCSO would be open to partnering with any community treatment center providers. “But unfortunately,” he said, “it’s not available.”
When it comes to addressing Bartow County's substance abuse problems in the short-term, Millsap and Firth agreed on the same solution.
“The first thing that comes to mind is education,” Firth said. “It starts with teaching our children right from wrong and raising our children properly, educating the public on the dangers of drug abuse, the dangers of prescription painkiller abuse.”
Millsap echoed those sentiments, stating that he believes raising awareness is instrumental in gaining ground in the community’s war on substance abuse.
“We do as many outreaches as we can to try to educate the folks not only on what drugs look like and what drugs will do to people,” he said, “but how to recognize the signs of drugs being dealt in your neighborhood, drugs being used by your family members.”
On the subject of potential drug legalization efforts, Firth said he preferred to not get into the discussion.
“The laws are the laws that I’m employed to enforce,” he said. “So I don’t really have a comment.”
Millsap, however, said he believes it’s only a matter of time until the State relaxes at least some of its drug statutes.
“I don’t have my head in the sand. I know that, eventually, legalization of marijuana will happen in the State of Georgia,” he said. “That’s something that we’re going to have to deal with.”
Yet Millsap said he personally isn’t in favor of such measures.
“I know that even if they were to legalize it, there’s still going to be those that are going to be doing it illegally,” he said. “So it’s going to compound one thing to get another thing — I don’t see that it’s going to help us at all.”
Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.