By Cindy Coloma

GeorgiaThe state of Georgia has weathered its fair share of challenging circumstances over the years. After rebuilding from the Civil War and Great Depression, residents of the Peach State emerged with new hope for the future, welcoming the 1996 Summer Olympics and corporate giants such as CNN and Coca-Cola, both of which call Atlanta home.1

However, like many areas in the United States, Georgia is currently in the midst of a new battle: the fight against opioid addiction.

What Are Opioids, Why Are They a Problem?

Opioids are a class of drugs that act on the body’s opioid receptors. They can be identified as natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic.

  • Natural opioids — also commonly referred to as opiates — include natural substances derived from the resin of an opium poppy, such as morphine.
  • Semi-synthetic opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone are well-known to anyone who has had dental work or medical surgery.
  • Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and methadone, are created in a lab and pose a great risk to those who choose to misuse them.2

While several factors have contributed to the opioid epidemic, one common theme is the misuse of prescription opioids. Medications initially prescribed by a trusted medical provider are devastating families around the country. According to the Washington Post, opioids kill an average of 142 people every day.3 Yet the number of prescriptions written for opioid analgesics continues to rise.2

Opioids mimic the body’s natural response by stimulating the opioid receptors. This reduces the perception of pain felt by the body, slowing down and even blocking the pain signal’s progress as it travels to the brain. As dopamine is released in the brain, the body feels pleasure, often described as euphoria. Many times, people misuse opioids in an attempt to repeat this sensation.

Opioid misuse may lead to physical and psychological dependence, requiring larger doses of opioids over time to achieve the same euphoric effect. Additionally, stopping opioid use abruptly can cause a person to experience withdrawal symptoms, such as agitation, anxiety, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, vomiting or diarrhea.2

New Synthetic Opioids Complicate Response Efforts

Synthetic opioids are a frightening development for those affected by opioid abuse. In the first four months of 2017, the state of Georgia saw 17 deaths due to use of illegal synthetic opioids — a staggering number considering it’s equal to the total opioid deaths for 2016.4

In June 2017, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) issued an alert regarding two new forms of synthetic opioids – acrylfentanyl and tetrahydrofuran fentanyl. Previously unidentified by the GBI crime lab, these synthetic opioids submitted by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s office were reportedly responsible for the hospitalization of dozens of users in the early months of 2017.5

Patients in South and Central Georgia had purchased what they thought was Percocet — a yellow opioid pill intended to treat pain — on the underground market. What they actually got were highly potent substances that resist the life-saving properties of naloxone (Narcan). In many cases, patients required massive doses of Narcan to counteract the effects of these new drugs.6

The introduction of lethally potent and less predictable opioids creates new challenges in an already overwhelming environment. Even if a substance appears to be a harmless medication, police officers and emergency personnel run the risk of fatal exposure to opioids. As Georgia officials navigate the complex landscape of the thriving opioid underground market, law enforcement agencies have been issued a statewide officer safety alert. Since these opioids can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, first responders have been warned to use personal protective equipment when handling synthetic opioids of any kind.4

Hope for the Opioid Crisis

Although the problem seems daunting, leaders in government and healthcare are exploring new ways to treat opioid addiction with an extra focus on the epicenter of the epidemic — Appalachia. Recently, NIDA partnered with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to fund planning and needs assessment research for future intervention programs in rural Appalachia. Many times, rural areas are underserved, with little-to-no resources for those affected by opioid addiction.7

As the battle continues and advocates fight to free those caught up in opioid abuse, evidence-based treatment and public awareness efforts are giving hope to families with loved ones seeking recovery. In the midst of great challenges, hope remains Georgia’s grand legacy.


Sources
1. “Hardship: The Civil War and Great Depression.” Georgia.gov, August 15, 2017.
2. Substance Abuse Research Alliance (SARA). Prescription Opioids and Heroin Addiction in Georgia: 2017. Georgia Prevention Project, August 15, 2017.
3. Bernstein, Lenny. “Deaths from drug overdoses soared in the first nine months of 2016.” Washington Post, August 8, 2017.
4. “GBI Issues Synthetic Opioids Alert.” Georgia Bureau of Investigation, May 4, 2017.
5. “Two Fentanyl Analogues New to GBI Crime Lab Encountered.” Georgia Bureau of Investigation, July 3, 2017.
6. “In Georgia: Sudden surge in overdoses related to street drugs sold as yellow opioid pain medication.” Emerging Trends and Alerts, National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 29, 2017.
7. “Research on the Use and Misuse of Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 20, 2017.

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