Used needles are traded for new ones.

Used needles are traded for new ones. / GPB

President Obama is in Atlanta today to speak at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. Although the rise of opioid abuse is a national problem, opioid addiction is especially critical in this state, where drug-related deaths increased by 10 percent from 2013 to 2014.

With The Spotlight On Drug Abuse In Georgia, Progress Is Still Slow


In the neighborhood on Atlanta’s west side known as “The Bluff,” community members like Jerry Murphy say heroin is not hard to find. He has lived here for years, helping drug addicts survive and stay off the streets. He tells me about one woman he’s taken care of at least five times, who passed away last week. I asked him how it happened.

“She O-D’d, because didn’t nobody know what to do. And they had a house full of people, grown people," says Murphy. "I was called after the fact, and it was too late.  And they didn’t get 911; I guess they didn’t find her.”

Murphy fights to educate the community on how to react in these situations. He says it’s not easy when no one around knows what to do.

“What to do? We teach kids how to call 911. We can teach – hopefully, we can teach grown-ups what to do in emergency situations," Murphy says.

He thinks the resources are there, but that communities like The Bluff have been largely ignored.

The Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition is a non-profit which works to provide some much needed help. Multiple times a week, volunteers drive an RV into these neighborhoods to provide clean needles for drug users.

“I think Atlanta Harm Reduction has been doing this for so long, the community has recognized it," said volunteer and college student Abhishek Shrestha. "Like every time this RV comes up, you can see a bunch of people. They recognize this RV as the needle exchange vehicle. It’s like, almost built into the community.”

Shrestha hands fresh needles to clients and encouraged them to take HIV and Hepatitis C tests in the RV. Fellow volunteer Gary Barber, who goes by “Chucky,” said those viruses are spreading because people share used or dirty needles.

“Most of the high-class folks think ‘well, since they doin’ this, but it’s helpin’ the drug addicts. You givin’ em needles, when you should be just tryin to take em away from em.’ But they gonna do it regardless; so you can’t stop it, so you just have to help em," said Chucky.

These volunteers operate this needle exchange program at great personal risk. That’s because it’s illegal in Georgia to distribute drug-related paraphernalia. The Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition is the only organization in the state that provides this service.

 The problem in Georgia is systemic, says Dawn Randolph of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. She says addiction often starts with prescription opioids, and later leads to heroin and heavier drug use.

“Opiates for pain management are supposed to be something that is useful with someone in surgery or a chronic condition that needs relief, and the doctor prescribes that medication," said Randolph. "However, folks unfortunately get it from friends, and use it for an abuse situation where they may have an addiction.”

According to Randolph, addiction is not confined to one community or demographic. Her organization sees it across all races and income levels.

“We are seeing an opiate overdose epidemic. We have a lot of families that have come to us that have lost their young loved ones," Randolph said.

The fight against drug abuse in Georgia is starting to get some relief. New drugs, known as “abuse-deterrent opioids”, are being introduced in hospitals and in doctor’s offices around the state. These pills would lose potency after being crushed or injected, and therefore help to break the cycle of addiction.

The Department of Health & Human Services recently granted Georgia over $700,000 to fight the epidemic. Community leaders like Murphy are waiting on those funds for support. He says he is tired of watching his neighbors lose their lives to drugs.

A client pours old needles from a water jug.

A client pours old needles from a water jug. / GPB

The RV comes to

The RV comes to "The Bluff" multiple times a week. / GPB

The Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition provides free HIV and Hepatitis C tests.

The Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition provides free HIV and Hepatitis C tests. / GPB