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Dawson County looks at ways to battle opiate addiction
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When Dawson County Treatment Court Coordinator Heather Herrington started working in the drug court program, north Georgia was known for one major "drug of choice."

"When I first started doing drug court in 2006, it was predominantly methamphetamine. Over the last two or three years, we have been getting a surge in opiates - not necessarily just heroin, but also [semi-synthetics]," she said. "We have had a lot more of those cases lately than we've ever had."

Heroin usage and deaths have doubled from 2010 to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In 2013, the highest rate of overdoses was in white 18- through 44-year-olds.

And the drug is more prevalent in the Northeast Georgia region than most people think.

"We are hearing more and more about heroin being the drug of choice now. It used to be methamphetamine, but now it's becoming more common, from what I've come to understand," said Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan. "I was shocked when I heard these numbers."

Grogan said he recently was made aware of the surge in opioid use after attending a Georgia Mountains Regional Commission meeting.

During the meeting, Dallas Gay spoke about an anti-heroin overdose drug known as Naloxone and about Project DAN - Deaths Avoided by Naloxone.

"[Mr. Gay] gave a personal account of what his grandson went through with heroin addiction and it just touched me," Grogan said. "They took a disaster [with the grandson's overdose] and turned it into a positive thing [with Project DAN] to try to help other people."

Gay, who lost a grandson to a heroin overdose, said Project DAN will seek to donate Naloxone throughout the regional commission's service area, which includes Forsyth, Dawson and Hall, among other northeast Georgia counties. The project is expected to begin in the fall.

Heroin was about 5 percent pure in the 1970s, according to The rest was filler material, like sugar or starch.

Now dealers often sell doses that are 80 percent pure, and filler material is being laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate analgesic similar to - but more potent than - morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

According to StopHeroin, 65 percent of addicts transition to heroin after getting hooked on prescription opioids. Synthetic opioids can sell for nearly $80 a pill. Heroin sells for about $20 for a one-gram hit and is much easier to find.

"We have found that people are prescribed these medications, generally after surgery and after they run out, they go and find heroin, which is a lot cheaper," Herrington said. "And now you have a heroin addict."

And because of this ease of availability, the north Georgia region is starting to see an increase in overdoses.

"Of the people, through the years, that I have known, that have since passed away, heroin is the drug that caused the majority of those deaths," Herrington said.

One of the purposes of Project DAN is to spread the drug Naloxone to EMS and police in the area.

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses.

According to Gay, law enforcement officers have saved 34 lives by using Naloxone since it became allowed in Georgia. He called it a "miracle drug."

"We have carried a similar drug on the trucks for years," said Dawson County Fire/Rescue Division Chief Lanier Swafford. "It's part of our standard equipment."

Other than distributing Naloxone, Project DAN also wants to increase awareness of the state's medical amnesty law, which allows emergency services to be called without legal repercussions.

Herrington, who sees her fair share of overdoses in her line of work, called the amnesty part of the project a "fantastic idea."

"Even in drug court, we try to tell people not to risk someone else's life just because you don't want to get in trouble," she said. "It's not worth somebody dying. Hopefully, word about this will get out so they will call EMTs and hopefully save somebody's life without worrying about getting arrested."

But Swafford said he is more doubtful about it.

"Most of the time, for overdose patients, the people that call dispatch are afraid of the consequences - mostly long-term medical," he said. "In my personal opinion, I don't think any sort of medical amnesty will play a factor in whether or not people report these overdoses."

But the community as a whole hopes that this initiative will help people look at these addictions differently, especially in the home.

"From a parent's perspective, we all think ‘Not my kids.' But it can be anybody's child. To be aware of the things that change in your children - behavioral, emotional or physical changes - when they might be using drugs, I think that a lot of parents are lost in not knowing the signs," Grogan said. "Maybe if this initiative can spark that understanding, it can alert families to the fact that it could be anyone affected by this."

Herrington said that she hopes it will open peoples' eyes to the dangers of drug use - even if it starts out with legally obtained prescriptions.

"It really starts by raising awareness about how dangerous opiates can be," she said. "It's an epidemic right now. There are a lot of dangers involved, especially with how many lives they take."

FCN regional staff contributed to this story.