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When heroin hits home: Tackling the increasing heroin problem in Middle Georgia

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MACON,GA -- It's been over 25 year since Wayne Cooper did any type of illegal drug.

A California native now living in Statesboro, the 58-year-old said he took his first hit of marijuana when he was just 13-years-old.

"It was in the third grade at an elementary school in San Francisco," he said. "I remember it was a magical moment for me. And I say it with a smile because I remember that moment. A friend brought a joint to school and we smoked it on the campus of the school on the third floor."

That one joint eventually lead Cooper to a drug much more potent and addictive: heroin.

"I can recall some brown powder on an album. I knew what it was that I was going to be using. I welcomed the opportunity to be with them and to use heroin. And my body rejected it. Immediately afterwards I threw up. And I just mentioned about the marijuana, I fell in love. Every opportunity I had after that, I would use heroin," Cooper said.

Cooper has since kicked his drug habit and is now a drug counselor at Willingway Hospital in Statesboro.

He said during his work as a counselor, he has seen an increase in heroin use in Middle Georgia.

"Yes definitely, definitely. What I have seen is an increase in opiates. And initially that was prescription drugs. What I've seen is a lot of young men and women would admit themselves into treatment for opiates. We're seeing now is because of the difficulty in being able to get some of the opiates prescriptions, heroin is kind of coming to play. And I think there is a direct correlation in maybe the difficulty in being able to get the prescription and opiates in the heroin use," Cooper said.

"What we're seeing now national is what we're seeing in the great state of Georgia, particularly the counties you're talking about. It's been a epidemic proportion in a lot of areas," said Daniel Salter, Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Heroin can be injected, inhaled or smoked. It is considered highly addictive because it causes a surge of euphoria.

"It hits on a number of receptors in your brain that gives you a feeling, from what I'm told, is sometimes beyond what they can imagine," Salter said. "There's been instances I've talk to people that have said, 'You know, I used it one time and I was hooked. That was my new best friend.' Unfortunately, that new best friend wrecks homes and families and ultimately kills them."

Long-term abuse results in collapsed veins, pulmonary complications, liver disease and clogging of the blood vessels.

So why is heroin use on the rise? Wesley Nunn with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said heroin is cheaper than other popular drugs.

"The Oxycontin types of drugs paying about $10 a milligram, we're talking about $60 or more per pill on Oxycontin. Heroin is much cheaper," Nunn said.

"Pain medicine sold on the street is about a dollar a milligram. So if you're using, taking 45 to 70 mg per, that's what you need to maintain that high, you're talking about $45 to $70 for that pill. Now, that same dosage unit in heroin can be in the Macon area around $50. And maybe you can use that twice, cut it twice," Salter said.

Salter said you can't mention heroin addiction without mentioning pain medicine.

"One in five users of heroin users started with pain medicine, and a lot of times they were prescribed it legitimately," he said. "So when you have 47,000 overdoses, drug deaths, in United States last year in 2014, and half of those are opiates or heroin related, it's a concern."

He said today's heroin users come from all backgrounds.

"I think it crosses all demographics," he said. "I realize at one time it was predominately seen in your inner cities. But now it's broadened out to our rural communities, which you see in your area. Demographically would be ages 19 to 34 where we seen a spike. And predominately when you look to mortality of heroin users, it's primarily, well there's a spike, I think it's about a 23 percent spike in white males dying of heroin overdoses."

The problem isn't just in Middle Georgia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2011, 4.2 million Americans, or 1.6 percent, ages 12 and older had used the drug at least once.

Salter said heroin-related arrests are also on the rise.

"Our heroin investigations in the United States are up 81 percent. So arrests associated with heroin, yes absolutely, throughout the country, to include this area as well," Salter said.

"People are switching over to do heroin. We've got one case out of Macon, we're working with the DEA and Macon authorities with this one. And we're probably going to see it here in the next year. More cases climb in the heroin market," Nunn said.

The rise in heroin and opioid use has even caught to attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In January, Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on attacking America's epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse.

Members of Congress are crafting a bipartisan bill aimed at fighting heroin and opioid addiction, saying it is a deadly and growing problem that afflicts states both red and blue.

Cooper said he doesn't think the battle against drugs is it's a waste of time. But he doesn't believe we're winning either.

"I think for whatever reason, people are not able to maybe access treatment on all areas, on all levels," he said. "I think treatment it is real important. I think we can do more in the preventive areas and being able to get into the schools, and educate children. But I truly don't believe that we are winning. We definitely can do more. We can do a lot more."

He said he feels treatment is a better option than a revolving door in and out of the criminal justice system.

"At any given time in prison, I would say anywhere from between 90 to 95 percent of the people in prison have a drug or alcohol problem or some kind of offense that was related to alcohol or drugs. And the need to address that is overwhelming," Cooper said. "Because I think we really, if we can focus on addressing the addiction to alcoholism or drug addiction, it may reduce those numbers."

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