As the epidemic of opioids continues to rise nationwide, authorities in Richmond and surrounding counties are growing increasingly concerned about their use with other drugs to enhance potency.
Sgt. Joel Danko, with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division, said overdoses from opioids that are cut with drugs have increased from 45 over the first 10 months in both 2015 and 2016 to 63 so far this year.
“I can’t say if these people all survived but there are already 18 more (overdoses) and this is only October,” Danko said.
The Richmond County Coroner’s Office averaged 20 deaths in relation to drug overdose. A portion of those deaths are a result of a newly introduced drug known as U-47700, coroner Mark Bowen said.
The synthetic opioid, which spreaded into the county in 2016, is purchased online by users and distributors from Chinese manufacturers and is frequently mixed with other drugs to enhance its potency.
It consists of morphine-like properties that are eight times stronger than heroin and has caused four deaths in the last few months, Bowen said. There was one death in July, two in May and one in June.
“It seems to me like we’re getting them just about every week,” Bowen said. “It’s more than it has been in the past and it makes it so much harder to have to sit down and tell family members that they’ve lost a loved one to drugs.”
Another opioid that has been seen more frequently in the county is fentanyl, Danko said.
The schedule II prescription drug is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is typically used to help patients manage severe pain after surgery.
“I would say probably within the last year we’ve seen it,” Danko said. “You know we tend to hear about the trends before it actually reaches us.”
Death rates in relation to the drug exceed that of U-47700, Bowen said recently.
“It’s on the streets pretty heavy,” he said.
A 2016 study from the Substance Abuse Research Alliance found that opioid overdoses in the U.S. kill 78 people daily. The number has quadrupled since 1999 with more than 28,470 deaths in 2015.
President Trump announced Monday that he would formally declare the epidemic a national emergency.
The president told reporters in August that the crisis was “a national emergency” that officials in his administration plan to “spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money” combating. As part of the effort, Trump nominated Tom Marino, R-Pa., as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Soon after being nominated as drug czar Marino withdrew his name from consideration. This motion came shortly after a report was released saying he weakened the Drug Enforcement Administrations’s ability to crack down on opioid distribution. The investigation , published by The Washington Post and CBS’ 60 Minutes, stated that Marino supported legislation that “hobbled the DEA.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that for a heroin addict, or someone who had an opioid addiction, this is something that they have to get every day to continue to function,” Danko said. “If they do not get their fix they go through a very bad withdrawal period with flu-like symptoms and this is why it is one of the most addictive drugs that we have out there right now.”
In neighboring Columbia County, numbers fluctuate.
Coroner Vernon Collins said the county has had 10 overdose deaths this year.
“Most are mixed drugs,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Michael Williamson, with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, reported 14 arrests in 2014 and 2015, five in 2016, and 14 to date in relation to heroin cases.
“It might come up a little this year but if you go further than that you’d see we didn’t have it for so long so yes, it’s coming back,” Williams said. “So we’re monitoring the traffic of the drug and making the appropriate arrests.”
Staff at Augusta Metro Treatment Center, which offers medication assisted treatment solutions and one-on-one counseling to patients, have also noticed the hike.
A counselor at the treatment center who only wanted to be identified as Robert said numbers for those seeking help to kick opiate dependency have increased in the last nine months.
“You have to understand there’s an influx and outflux over time,” he said. “From my personal impression there has been an increase in the number of individuals seeking treatment.”
As part of the medication-assisted treatment, known as MAT, methadone, buprenorphine or suboxone is given to patients in small doses to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. These medications, according to the counselor, are “targeted to reduce opiate craving and withdrawal in a safe way for individuals without producing as a consequence intoxication or a high.”
Once patients show signs of independence from the opiate they are slowly taken off the medication.
When it comes to prevention, William Jacobs, medical director of Bluff Plantation, a comprehensive residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Augusta, said it will require an increase in programs, aimed at opioid addicition, and health care providers who specialize in the field.
“With any disease, if you can prevent it from developing it would be a whole lot cost effective and safer,” he said. “We need to do more in this area. We need to train more health care providers to help with the disease. This is not a moral failing of patients being weak, or stupid, or immoral, it’s about their brains being hijacked by the drugs and treatment.”