Last week, the UNG Gainesville Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Georgia Overdose Prevention, and the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) hosted an overdose prevention workshop at the Gainesville campus of the University of North Georgia.
Georgia, like the rest of the country, is in the midst of an overdose epidemic. Heroin-related overdose deaths tripled between 2010 and 2013 due to a confluence of issues, including patients turning to street drugs after the government tightened restrictions on prescription painkillers and the appearance of fentanyl-laced heroin on the streets of Atlanta and many other cities. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate that is 15-20 times stronger than heroin and 80-100 times stronger than morphine. While heroin and fentanyl deaths are on the rise, most overdose deaths are caused by prescription medications like Xanax and Vicodin, often legally prescribed, or a combination of prescription medications.
Georgia Overdose Prevention was born in Atlanta in late 2012 in the wake of an overdose awareness vigil at Piedmont Park. It was there that several people, including some members of Action in Dahlonega, shared stories of losing friends and loved ones to drug overdose. There they met Mona Bennett of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC), who has worked to make the lives of drug users in Atlanta safer for many years. Mona shared information about efforts in Georgia and other states to get two laws passed: one to provide legal amnesty to friends who call 911 to report an overdose (even when the police show up and drugs are present) and another to make access to naloxone, a live-saving drug that reverses opiate overdoses, legal to carry, distribute, and administer.
For several months the group met, usually at a Fresh to Order restaurant in Midtown, to plan a course of action. The group remained an informal grassroots network and worked closely with harm reduction advocates in Georgia and North Carolina (which had recently passed its own Good Samaritan and naloxone access laws), medical professionals, and even local police, and slowly grew their numbers. In 2013 they joined forces with another local overdose prevention group and launched a media and outreach campaign. They were eventually able to get state representative Sharon Cooper, chair of the House Health and Human Services committee, to support and sponsor the law. State senator Renee Unterman, chair of the senate Health and Human Services committee, agreed to support the law if it passed the House.
The parents of those who lost loved ones and other activists leapt into action at the start of the 2014 legislative session. They roamed the halls of the capitol almost every day, carrying pictures of their children and loved ones and sharing their stories with anyone who would listen. Despite some tense moments, and much to their surprise, a comprehensive law providing legal amnesty to bystanders who call 911 to report an overdose from drugs or alcohol and granting broad access to naloxone passed on the next-to-last day of the legislative session. The law, which has since become a standard for similar laws around the country, was signed by governor Nathan Deal on April 24, 2014, effective immediately.
After the law passed, Georgia Overdose Prevention and AHRC set about getting the word out and distributing naloxone to Georgia communities. They’ve also worked with local police and sheriff’s departments, from Holly Springs to Atlanta (which recently started a pilot program in Zone 1, the heroin “capital” of Georgia) to equip officers, who are often first responders to an overdose scene, with naloxone. As of April 8, 2015 at least 232 overdoses have been reversed from naloxone distributed by Georgia Overdose Prevention and AHRC. That’s 232 lives potentially saved, with many more we might not know about, thanks to grassroots direct action.
Georgia Overdose Prevention frequently hosts workshops to educate the community on these new laws and on naloxone administration. They have recently included methadone clinics and rehab centers, two of the most at-risk communities, in their awareness and naloxone distribution efforts.
The story of Georgia Overdose Prevention and the long history of ARHC prove the power of regular people taking action within their communites to improve conditions and save lives. While the state helped by passing laws that effectively remove them from the picture, the credit for such laws, education and outreach, and life-saving measures falls squarely on the regular people who put in the work to make it happen.
Many states still don’t have 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone access laws in place. Even in states with such laws, many drug users are still unaware they exist. The work of groups like Georgia Overdose Prevention and AHRC will continue for the foreseeable future and it will certainly save more lives. To quote one Georgia Overdose Prevention member, who has since seen several of her son’s friends who once used recover and lead healthy, productive lives: “If they’re still alive, there’s hope.”
Georgia’s overdose prevention law, HB965, provides immunity from arrest, criminal or civil charges, and prosecution for drug paraphernalia, small amounts of controlled substances, and underage purchase or possession of alcohol for bystanders at the scene of an overdose when someone calls 911 for help. It also protects against probation and parole violations and violations of protective and restraining orders.
When calling 911 to report an overdose, or if police stop and question you about naloxone you have in your possession, explain that you are protected under HB965 / O.C.G.A. 13-16-5, which gives you the right to immunity and permission to possess and administer naloxone. Click here for the Georgia Overdose Prevention/AHRC overdose reversal guide.
To learn more about Atlanta Harm Reduction, which also operates a free needle exchange and promotes harm reduction methods to make using safer (and prevent transmission of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV) for drug users who aren’t ready to quit just yet, contact them by email or visit their web site.
A copy of the Georgia law can be found here.
Information about naloxone and how to administer it is available here.