SPECIAL REPORT: Ending the Epidemic one year later

SPECIAL REPORT: Ending the Epidemic one year later

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – One year ago, we unveiled a groundbreaking 5-part series for you on-air, online and on our free WTVM news app called "Ending the Epidemic" about prescription drug and heroin abuse. Now, we fast forward one year later.

The federal budget, just approved by Congress, includes an increase of $150 million for programs to prevent and treat opioid and heroin use, but are these issues improving in the Chattahoochee Valley?

Local advocates have some answers in the war on these drugs.

"I was selling drugs, destroying lives...and now I'm giving hope," former drug addict Joshua Dudley told News Leader 9 in May 2016.

Today, Dudley tells us his faith has made it easy to stay off drugs and help others do the same in the Columbus area.

The bad news is: 91 Americans still die each day from the raging opioid epidemic, while local investigators tell us the challenges with heroin have only grown.

"It's (heroin) coming back and it's cheap," Sgt. Jonnie Ellerbee, with Muscogee Co. Sheriff's Investigations, said. "Heroin is becoming more popular in our community. We're making more arrests, seeing more heroin, more heroin dealers."

That's how Sgt. Jonnie Ellerbee describes it in the Chattahoochee Valley, compared to a year ago. We also went inside the Muscogee County jail, to visit the chaplain there - former drug dealer Neil Richardson - one year after we discussed problems and solutions that were the focus of the Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit News Leader 9 attended in Atlanta.

His perspective now: "Heroin's gotten worse. Even after you came back from that conference and we spoke about how bad it's gotten...it's still cheap, it's still dirt easy money to get," Chaplain Richardson said.

He also says heroin is the number one drug people get arrested for in Columbus, in part because of a positive change: street-level prescription drugs are not easy to get anymore, because of law enforcement cracking down on doctors writing illegal prescriptions.

Earlier this month, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed several bills into law - one to keep addicts from "doctor shopping" by establishing a prescription monitoring database.

The other restricts drug treatment clinics from popping up without proper licensing.

This week, a doctor from Lagrange was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in operating a pill mill.

"So the Oxys and Roxys, we're not seeing them come through the back door as much. What we're seeing is heroin," Richardson added.

"We try to stop it at the source. We get informants to make buys," Sgt. Ellerbee said.

Along with Muscogee County investigators hitting the streets, they say any extra funding helps.

The recently passed federal spending bill from the Trump administration more than quadruples funds to fight opioid addiction, now $800 million dollars for programs.

At the 2017 Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit just last month, a top U.S. department official says they're spending more money on the opioid and heroin overdose epidemic - and making progress, working closely with authorities from China and Mexico, the source now of most of the heroin consumed in America.

Sgt. Ellerbee chimed in: "To make it harder to get it across the border, to get it to here, to get it to Columbus GA, anything to slow it down makes it better."

Solutions were a big part of that summit in Atlanta last month, with a record 2400 in attendance.

That is where Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, from Georgia, announced the release of $485 million worth of grants to pay for evidence-based treatment.

He said "We lose a Vietnam War every single year to drug overdoses" - the cause of death for more than 52,000 people in 2015 alone.

Other who survive may end up in jail, where 85 percent of inmates nationwide are behind bars for something connected to drugs or alcohol.

"This is nasty. You don't want to go to prison," Richardson said, calling it an important deterrent.

Federal prosecutors in Alabama and Georgia say they've arrested hundreds of heroin dealers over the past few months, but it only temporarily dries up the streets.

"The indictments and arrests have a short-term impact on overdose deaths. In essence, they buy the community breathing space," former US Attorney Joyce Vance said.

"It's uphill. It's something that I don't know will ever be a battle that's won," Sgt. Ellerbee admitted.

Part of that climb is saving lives the opioid antidote Naloxone. A week ago, with the stroke of a pen, Georgia's Governor made it available over-the-counter. Nar-Can was one of the focuses of our series a year ago when we talked to several parents who lost children to addiction, including Gary Mendell, who lost a son to addiction years ago.

"Naloxone should be everywhere tomorrow, not in 6 months or 9 months," he told us.

A year after our interview with Mendell, his non-profit Shatterproof is now launching a Substance Use Disorder Treatment Task Force, bringing top business minds and researchers together to develop sound policies and expand access to quality treatment.

"If we can just get them seats in an aggressive program where they can have some accountability...then they have a shot," Richardson said.

The local jail chaplain also updated us on the recovering addicts in Columbus on these certificates for finishing those faith-based drug programs.

"We talked about a couple specific people last year who, to this day, I'm still working with successfully on the outside," Richardson said.

SafeHouse Ministries, which he is also in charge of, is opening an outpatient substance abuse program this summer in the Columbus area.

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