Fatal heroin overdoses on the rise in Georgia

Driving home from jail, where he had spent nearly two months following a DUI arrest, Grant Timbes told his best friend that he was done with drugs.

When Timbes, 27, was arrested in October, his friends and family agreed not to bond him out, hoping that incarceration might be the solution to ending his dependence on prescription pills.

“He talked about staying clean, about trying to get back with his girlfriend in Tennessee,” said Ryan Whittington, 28, who had known Timbes since grade school.

It would be their last conversation. Timbes died of a heroin overdose that same night; Whittington discovered him face down in his father’s bathroom, a used syringe and small plastic bag of heroin by his side.

“I had no idea he was doing heroin,” Whittington said. “I thought it was just pills.”

Timbes is one of three fatal heroin overdoses reported in Forsyth County since December, and his death follows a national trend. With prescription pills harder to obtain, addicts are increasingly turning to heroin, which is more readily available, cheaper and, experts say, more potent than ever.

“We don’t experience too many overdoses in Forsyth County,” said sheriff’s office spokesman Dep. Douglas Rainwater. “For us to have three, that’s a lot.”

In February, 22-year-old Christopher Anderson was found dead by his mother in their Suwanee home. Last month, 16-year-old Carson Frier died from an overdose after breaking into his older brother’s stash. Casey Frier told police Carson had seen him do heroin the night before and “probably thought it was cool,” according to the incident report.

According to the GBI, lethal heroin overdoses have risen sharply in Georgia, from three in 2010 to 16 in 2012. So far this year there have 13 heroin-related deaths reported in the state.

Nationwide, heroin use has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to the just-released National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The survey found that the number of people over 12 years old who used heroin in the past year rose from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.

Traditionally, the opiate has never pervaded Georgia as it has other regions of the country, said Brian Dew, a Georgia State University professor who serves as the Atlanta representative for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Heroin users accounted for a little less than 5 percent of the drug treatment admissions in Georgia in 2012 compared to 20 to 25 percent in many northeastern states, he said.

“But we are seeing usage spread out of the urban areas,” he said.

Law enforcement officials agree the increase is likely due to the crackdown on prescription drug abuse. Usage of prescription pills for non-medical reasons among was 5.3 percent among ages 18 to 25 – down from 6.4 percent in 2009, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Seizures of prescription pills by the Cherokee Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad were way down in 2012, said the unit’s commander, Phillip Price. But after seizing no heroin in the two years prior, agents secured 22.25 grams last year, or about $45,000 worth.

“There was a time when we didn’t see heroin at all,” Price said.

The demand is such that the dealers are going directly to their customers, say police.

According to Gwinnett County police’s narcotics unit, “there had been an increase indicating local dealers are supplying heroin, a change from individual users traveling to Atlanta to purchase the drug,” said spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith.

Late last month, Forsyth County deputies charged an Atlanta couple with selling heroin from a Cumming motel. Marc Thomas, 27, and Courtney Dale, 20, were arrested while allegedly completing a deal in their room.

Investigators haven’t linked them to the recent overdoses in Forsyth, but Rainwater said the impounded heroin was more potent than what they’ve become accustomed to seeing.

“Grant’s death has about destroyed our family,” said Ryan’s mother, Andrea Whittington, who said Timbes “had been like a son to me for 20 years.” “It’s just such a tragedy that so many great young people are dying way too soon from this horrible drug.”

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