Deaths from opioids have dropped nationally, but fatal overdoses are a top concern in Georgia. One police department is trying something new: instead of locking them up, officers are steering people who overdose into treatment.
Police across Georgia are admitting they need to try something new to battle the opioid crisis. To fight addiction, drug users need resources.
Back in 2012 Rob Petrecca called 911 to help a fellow heroin user. The 20-year-old who’d been using since the age of 17 had never been arrested and never seen anyone overdose.
“I kind of just dove in headfirst,” Petrecca said. “I went from just smoking weed to immediately shooting heroin.”
But that day, his friend lied to him about having been sober a while and instantly overdosed when she used as much as she had in the past.
“We got high in my car in that (Wendy’s) parking lot,” Petrecca said. “By the time I got to the bottom of the onramp, she was dead.”
Emergency medical officials responded quickly and the woman survived her overdose, but both Petrecca and the woman ended up in the Cobb County jail.
That’s because, at that time, overdoses were treated as crimes, Officer Chuck McPhilamy said.
“If you had drugs or drug paraphernalia on you, you were going to jail,” McPhilamy said. “There was no more thought put into it. It wasn't that we were trying to be cold-hearted.”
The law demanded arrests.
But that started to change in 2014 when then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a medical amnesty act aimed at saving lives.
“In that medical amnesty act, we're not looking to make any arrest,” McPhilamy said. “We're just trying to get that person help.”
In high school, Petrecca earned straight A’s and never got in trouble, he said. Until he found heroin. Then, he became the kind of person who’d steal from family.
“I was put in rehab by my aunt because she happened to look in her closet one day and realized that there was $14,000 in jewelry missing,” Petrecca said. “And when she flipped my mattress, there was spoons and needles and bags and all sorts of stuff underneath.”
Petrecca spent seven months in jail after his friend’s overdose in 2012, but he didn’t take recovery seriously.
I overdosed twice on Christmas Day in 2013,” he said. “My mom had to bring me back with Narcan.”
While on probation, he was arrested again in 2015 and spent 14 months in prison. Three days after his release, he relapsed again. He married a woman he used drugs with and though they stayed sober for a while when she was pregnant, Petrecca ended up back in jail and missed the birth of his daughter in 2017.
His bottom came when he woke up alone on his one-year wedding anniversary and had no idea where his wife and daughter were.
“I wanted to die and I was about to die,” Petrecca said. “My central nervous system was shutting down from so much cocaine. I was like 131 pounds. And so I called my attorney and I pretty much told her, ‘You need to get me into court or I'm going to die.’”
Petrecca said he failed for “every kind of drug” in court and he felt ready to accept a 10-year sentence to get his sobriety, but the judge ordered him into a program where he had medication-assisted treatment.
He hasn’t used heroin since February 2018. He has his wife, daughter and work as a landscaper. Petrecca even started a business landscaping property in Cherokee County on the weekends with a man he previously used drugs with.
The men started their own business this summer and already have a handful of clients — some who paid through the year.
It’s tough to build a business. But hard work beats being dead or in prison. That’s the truth Petrecca and his friend Aaron Vilchez are living today.
To get other opioid users where Petrecca is today, Marietta officials realized they had to quit running in circles.
Marietta police and fire officials carry Narcan, the live-saving medicine that stops an opioid overdose. So far this year, officials in both departments have used Narcan 19 times.
“In a 24-hour period sometimes we’ll see as many as 3 or 4 overdoses,” Assistant Fire Chief Chris Whitmire said.
In 2018, officials saved overdose victims in the city 100 times by dosing them with Narcan. McPhilamy said the police chief realized these same victims were likely to need reviving again and again.
“Well if it's predictable, it's preventable,” McPhilamy said.
So, Marietta police Chief Dan Flynn decided to get into the business of prevention, which is something no other Georgia police department has done.
“The cold hard reality is we can't arrest our way out of this situation,” McPhilamy said.
Now, nine officers are responsible for following up with drug users within 24 hours of their overdose. When the ASSIST team visits, the goal is to help people recover.
The program started in May led by Lt. Mike Goins. He said they are learning as they go.
One of the first people the team followed up with had overdosed on the side of a road in Marietta.
Another man flagged down a patrol car and the officer revived the victim with Narcan, but, when the ASSIST team tried to follow up, they found the man lied about his name and address. He was either homeless or from out of state, and officers were never able to track him down with information about recovery programs.
“So, we changed our approach,” Goins said. “Now, if the officer on the scene says that this person could possibly be homeless then one of the ASSIST team members will immediately respond to the hospital and try to give him some information about recovery. See if he wants to go to detox so we won't lose this person once he gets released from the hospital.”
At least one woman who was particularly distraught after an overdose has accepted information about recovery and is seeking treatment in Marietta, McPhilamy said.
“The program is still in its infancy,” he said. “We're expecting to have doors slammed in our face. We're expecting to have some people say ‘No. Get out. I don't want to talk to you.’”
But McPhilamy said Goins and the team will persevere because, in the end, if they can save even one life it’s worth it.