District attorney: Heroin abuse at a “crisis” level in north Fulton

She’s been gone nearly two years, but Rita Bennett still visits her daughter’s room every morning to say, “I love you.”

“Now I don’t hear back from her, ‘I love you, mom,’ ” Bennett, of Johns Creek, told a room of top Fulton County officials and reporters Friday. “Every day is like March 3, 2014,” the last time Chelsea Bennett was injected with heroin.

On that day, 20-year-old Chelsea Bennett was injected with an extra-pure form of heroin, overdosing almost immediately, one of 154 heroin-related deaths in Fulton from 2010 to 2014.

"We are staring at a crisis that gives every indication it will grow worse," said District Attorney Paul Howard, who, along with County Commission Chairman John Eaves, commissioned an outside research firm to capture the scope of north Fulton's heroin problem.

The results are jarring. In 2010 the Fulton medical examiner's office recorded four heroin-related deaths. That number skyrocketed to 77 in 2014 and, while final figures for 2015 are not yet available, at least 82 deaths have been connected to heroin use, Howard said.

“If we assume a 20 percent increase, we could see 278 deaths in 2021,” said Kevin Baldwin, one of the authors of the just-released study. A 50 percent increase is more realistic, he said.

A quarter of those 154 deaths from 2010-14 took place in two ZIP codes, 30314 and 30318, covering Vine City and English Avenue, according to the study. Eighteen percent have come in north Fulton, which has seen the biggest growth in heroin-related casualties.

“Ninety percent of the people who initiate heroin use are white males between the ages of 18 and 25,” Baldwin said. “In more affluent areas, people are starting younger.”

The reason: Heroin is easier to get, cheaper and more potent than ever, according to the study.

And its deadly reach extends across the metro Atlanta area. John Horn, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said there have been 17 heroin overdoses in Gwinnett County since the end of September, and that’s without complete data from 2015’s final two months. In Cobb, heroin accounted for half of the county’s drug-related deaths in 2015, Horn said.

It’s a similar story across the nation. By 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of heroin-related deaths had nearly quadrupled since 2002.

But no area has been hit harder than the New England states, say experts. Rutland, Vermont, Mayor Christopher Louras, who attended Friday’s forum, said the problem “snuck up on us, hidden behind closed doors, spoken about in whispers.”

Initially, city leaders relied on the local police force to handle the problem. But soon they realized law enforcement was “ill-equipped,” Louras said. “They are not mental health or substance abuse experts.”

Fulton officials say they are copying Rutland’s holistic approach, involving everyone from prosecutors to academia.

“Get ahead of this problem. Don’t let it get ahead of you,” Louras said.

Locally, there are signs of progress. For the past year, Atlanta police, with help from the U.S. attorney’s office, has targeted drug sales in “The Bluff,” a notorious open-air heroin supermarket bordered by English Avenue and Vine City.

In hopes of giving the community a chance at restoration by eradicating the heroin trade, surveillance cameras were added. A youth diversion program, dealing with low-level offenders, was launched. Some officers even became residents.

“We’ve had some amazing successes. I’m confident, in the next five years, this community will look nothing like it does now,” Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said Friday.

The numbers suggest, though, that dealers have simply relocated.

“You’re never going to eliminate the heroin trade,” said Horn, noting that repackaging and redistribution has expanded into the suburbs.