Heroin use on the rise in suburbia

by Clay Neely


Robin Elliot holds a photo of her son Zack, who lost his battle with heroin addiction. Robin helped champion the “911 Medical Amnesty” law, which grants limited prosecution immunity to people who seek help during a drug or alcohol overdose. 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on the spread of drug addiction, including prescription pills, heroin and other opiates in Coweta County. The series will look at drug use, treatment programs – or the lack thereof – as well as what law enforcement, the medical community and the judicial branch are facing.

When Zack Elliot left the Morningside neighborhood in Atlanta to live with his grandparents in Newnan, it was the final stop on a long journey in his battle with opiate addiction.

A graduate of Pace Academy, a private school in Atlanta, Zack had been an exceptional student, athlete, and musician – well-liked amongst his peers and with a good sense of humor.

After losing his father to cancer as a child, Zack had grown especially close to his mother, Robin Elliot. Even through the turbulence of Zack’s adolescent and teenage years, she had navigated the emotional changes with relative ease alongside her son.

But like many teenagers, Zack was eventually exposed to drugs and it wasn’t long before Robin knew something was wrong.

During a parent-teacher conference his junior year, Robin learned that her son was rarely at school and when he was, his head wasn’t.

Soon, Zack was placed in a therapeutic wilderness program in Utah designed to help young people suffering from addiction. Zack eventually found himself in a pattern of long stretches of sobriety, only to be interrupted by brief periods of relapse. As a young man of 18, he could no longer be involuntarily held in rehabilitation centers.

However, Robin was adamant that as long as Zack continued to use drugs, he wouldn’t be allowed back home. Eventually, Zack found his way to Newnan, where his grandparents offered him a place he could get back on track.

Zack began waiting tables at Cracker Barrel while he recovered. One evening after work, Zack returned to his grandparents’ home to find the keys to their car weren’t hidden away. His pockets filled with the money he had made that night, Zack commandeered his grandparents’ car and never returned.

“We really thought he had it beat,” Robin Elliot said.

On May 1, 2011, Zack died from a heroin overdose.

His death was not an isolated incident – heroin use has been on the rise in suburban communities and among teenagers across the nation.

The spread of heroin use is not exclusive to any socioeconomic demographic. What was traditionally viewed as an urban drug – confined to the streets and underpasses of major cities, has now made its way into the confines of suburban communities across the country.

The rise of heroin use isn’t necessarily an anomaly. With the recent rise of prescription drug abuse, police and health providers are cracking down on the availability of pills. Oxycontin, one of the most popular of pharmaceutical opiates, has a street value of $80 for an 80-mg tablet and is becoming harder to obtain.

Because of the recent suppression, many addicts are circumventing this obstacle and choosing heroin instead. Unlike pharmaceutical opiates, though, which are created uniformly, the potency of heroin can vary.

In addition, many dealers are now diluting the drug with Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used to relieve chronic pain. The drug is known to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine – thus making the possibility of overdose even greater. According to Elliot, many addicts are no longer forced to find drugs in the city. Dealers are now delivering their product right to the back doors of homes in suburban communities.

Elliot recalled the story of a Woodward student who recently celebrated his 16th birthday with friends at his home in Buckhead. A dealer dropped off a bundle of heroin for the party. That evening, the young man overdosed.

Instead of alerting the teen’s sleeping parents or calling 911, his friends fled the scene out of fear of being punished. As a result, the young man died on his birthday after being found by his mother the next morning.

Stories like these are far too common and have helped to fuel Elliot’s desire to act. After learning about North Carolina’s successful medical amnesty law, Elliot was determined to bring hope to Georgia.

Elliot supported the efforts of state Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-east Cobb) to pass the Georgia 9-1-1 Medical Amnesty Law (HB 965), which was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on April 24, three years to the day when Elliot last saw her son alive.

Currently, Georgia loses more than 1,000 people each year to drug overdoses. It is hoped that the new law will reduce the number of deaths and offer an opportunity for treatment to those struggling with addiction.

The new law went into effect the day it was signed and allows anyone who calls police to help someone who is near death to be excused from drug charges. The bill also encourages police to carry a drug called naloxone, commonly referred to as Narcan. The drug counters the effects of opiates and can revive an overdose victim.

Currently, the Holly Springs Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in Georgia carrying Narcan. Only days after completing training on administering the drug, they saved their first life using it.

While Narcan is available with a prescription, many drugstores don’t carry it. Elliot feels that anyone who is taking opiates, legal or prescribed, needs to have immediate access to a Narcan kit, which can be purchased online.

While Elliot is working tirelessly to shine a light on the new law and Narcan, she feels more lives can be saved by simply speaking out.

“If a person told you your child was using drugs, would you be mad at them?” asked Elliot. “For me it would be the greatest day of my life – either I would know immediately about the problem and catch it sooner or I would find out that it wasn’t true.”

“Not one parent or friend ever reached out to me, because they were afraid of losing a friend,” Elliot said. “And because of their silence, they did lose a friend. We all did.”

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