Heroin tightens its grip 

In Atlanta, the number of new heroin users is growing — with fatal results

Page 5 of 7

But before the money ran out, the cops caught up with her. She was driving to pick up her boyfriend at work, swerving all over the road, when she was pulled over. She told the officer she was exhausted. He put her in the back of his patrol car and called her parents to pick her up.

As her parents were on their way, the officer found a baggie filled with brownish-white powder in the side pocket of Amy's purse. She was still in the back of the patrol car when her parents arrived, and the officer told them their daughter was using heroin.

Peering through the window, she saw that her father, never the emotional type, was more sad than she'd ever seen him. Tears were running down her mother's face.

Once she was bonded out of jail, on charges of DUI and possession of narcotics, Amy expected yelling and screaming from her parents. That didn't happen. They were deflated by the news, she says. They were also in a state of disbelief. "Parents don't really want to believe that their daughter is using heroin," she says. "They were in denial for a long time."

After getting out of jail, she lived at her parents' house. She totaled her car, so she started driving theirs. Then she ran out of money, so she started stealing from her parents. The denial stage was over. Amy's parents started locking their car keys, cash and credit cards in a safe. But Amy found a way to pop the lock with a knife.

Finally, her dad sat down with her and said, point blank, "My daughter is a junkie." He told her he wasn't sure how long she had to live.

At that point, Amy saw herself for what she really was: She had no friends. No emotions. No attachments. No goals. Her veins were bruised, her arms permanently scarred. She'd dropped 30 pounds, weighing in at just more than 100. She was a shell of her old self.

She told her father she wanted to check herself into rehab. She went in the following week, Jan. 16, 2006. She stayed for a month. This time was different. She wanted to stop. And she had her family there to support her. "They retrain you how to function in everyday life," she says.

More than two years later, she hasn't touched heroin. Nor has she seen her ex-boyfriend. Not once. She's engaged to someone else. She and her fiancé are trying to buy their first house. She finally made it to nursing school.

She doesn't try to ignore her past. She considers herself among the lucky ones.

"It's not something that I'm proud of, but it's not something that I'm ashamed of, either," she says. "It could happen to anyone."

All too often, heroin addiction doesn't end with recovery. Many times, it ends with incarceration. Sometimes, it ends with death.

Tracking those deaths has proven difficult.

The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office does keep a tally of fatal heroin overdoses – but only since December, and only because the state crime lab got so backed up that the Fulton office had to outsource blood toxicology tests to a private lab. Unlike the state lab, the private one has the ability to determine the type of drug responsible for an overdose. As a result, the past year offers a rare glimpse into Atlanta's heroin fatality rate.

The four deaths that came in rapid succession in April (the autopsies for which were finalized in late May and early June) were surprising.

"I am aware that we have had some high-profile cases," GSU's Dew says. "I was not aware of the four overdoses within those few days."

One possible explanation, he says, would be "a really strong batch." He also says it would be up to law enforcement to investigate the deaths – and up to the medical examiner's office to alert law enforcement to them in the first place.

"I would absolutely 100 percent believe that there would be communication between the medical examiner's office and the state investigative unit," Dew says. "I mean, there would have to be."

After an initial interview, John Cross, director of the Fulton Medical Examiner's Office, could not be reached to confirm whether he had alerted law enforcement to the deaths.

The past eight months aside, the medical examiner's office only has tracked the wider category of opiate overdoses – which also includes deaths from prescription drugs such as OxyContin and methadone.

In 2007, the office recorded 25 deaths from all opiates. Since the office began to track heroin deaths specifically, there were 15 opiate deaths in the first half of 2008 – eight of which were attributed to heroin.

In an earlier interview, Cross said of the pre-2008 data: "It makes it a little more disconcerting in trying to figure out the numbers – and trying to figure out what you're seeing. They may be heroin, and they may not be heroin. We just don't know."

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