District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson is dead serious about the threat of fentanyl and other illicit drugs to the nearly one million residents in Gwinnett County, and she is clear that these drugs do indeed affect every single resident and business owner in the county.
“We aren’t talking about bad kids or only substance abusers or people from the wrong side of the tracks dying from these deadly drugs. We see families who are burying their children who may have ingested fentanyl without even knowing what they were taking. No neighborhood is safe, even those with beautifully manicured lawns. No area is immune from this problem.
Austin-Gatson added that Atlanta is a major hub for drug cartels. More cartels are represented in Atlanta than in any other city in the country. “Diversity is a good thing, but it also makes it easy for these people to blend in, undetected,” to do their dirty, poisonous business.
This fact matters, because deadly drugs cut with even more deadly substances are being brought into the United States by Mexican cartels. While fentanyl is illegal in China, China still sells the precursor drugs required to make fentanyl to individuals outside their country. A simple thermolytic process in a small lab turns these precursor drugs into fentanyl. Fentanyl is then used to “cut” illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine for profit, and then the drugs are brought into the U.S for distribution. The drugs are likely then further cut at the distribution level, then at the dealer level, and at every level in between, to increase profits. The cost of human life is never factored in, just the profit.
The DA’s office is so serious about curbing or even stopping the recent spike in fentanyl deaths, they have changed the way they prosecute drug dealers. “When we know that a death was caused by fentanyl, the person who sold the drug is charged with felony murder,” said Brandon Delfunt, Deputy Chief Assistant. Currently, there are nine such cases under investigation by the Gwinnett County DA’s office, and six cases under indictment. “Maybe when they see that we are serious about bringing murder charges, they will consider their actions more carefully,” he said. “Right now, the deaths don’t matter to them.”
According to Delfunt, fentanyl showed up about ten years ago as an illicit street drug. Today, that same drug is the number one killer of people ages 18 – 49. Fentanyl has passed traffic accidents and shootings to gain that top spot.
In 2022, in the state of Georgia, so far there have been 12,071 suspected overdoses, with 540 of those being fatal. In Gwinnett County, there have been 723 suspected overdoses, 139 of them fatal. These statistics are from Tom Branch, Jr., the Gwinnett-Newton-Rockdale Department of Public Health Opioid Surveillance and prevention Specialist.
But why would drug traffickers mix such a deadly drug with illicit substances that are already dangerous? Why kill their customers?
“It’s actually a selling point in the drug world,” said Delfunt. “When word gets out that this guy’s heroin or that guy’s cocaine has killed someone, drug seekers actually want those drugs. It means that that dealer’s product is stronger than someone else’s, and the goal is always to find a better, stronger high. And when they find it, it’s probably also less expensive, because fentanyl is so much more potent than, say, heroin, so it takes less of it to get you high.”
The downside, of course, is that there is a very real possibility that the same drug will kill you.
Delfunt added, “When we were kids, our parents told us not to use drugs. They explained that we could harm ourselves or someone else, lose a job, or become addicted. But today, the very real truth of the matter is that recreational drug use of any kind is a game of Russian roulette.”
Another way the deadly game of illicit drug use has changed is in the very appearance of the drugs. Delfunt continued, “It’s rare that you’d have to tell a young person not to shoot up with heroin. That’s just not something that sounds recreational or fun or harmless. But deadly drugs that look like Skittles or pharmaceutical prescription pills, that doesn’t look intimidating at all to a young person, especially if they’re getting them from a friend.”
“One pill truly can kill,” Austin-Gatson added.
And pills are out there, readily available, made with fentanyl. How? Pill presses, machines that can turn out pills that look exactly like pharmaceutical grade pills like Oxycontin, Percoset and Xanax, are sold online. Gwinnett County law enforcement recently arrested a man who had a pill press that turns out 20,000 pills in an hour. That same man had two other pill presses in his possession, as well as $264,000 in cash.
Gwinnett County is currently investigating a case in which a young man from Gwinnett drove to Flowery Branch, got a counterfeit pill from a girl, then drove home and took that pill. His parents later found him dead.
Another troubling change is that these deadly drugs are so easily available today. There was a time when someone had to know who to ask, and where to look, to get a drug like heroin. Today, drug dealers are brazenly open on apps like Tik-Tok and Snapchat, advertising that they are open for business, and that their drugs are very potent.
“Fentanyl is in everything,” said Austin-Gatson. “It’s even in weed.” She and Delfunt went on to share a recent event in Florida, when a female police officer touched marijuana that had been laced with fentanyl. She immediately collapsed, unresponsive. Other officers on the scene used repeated doses of Narcan to revive her. Narcan (naloxone) is a drug that is administered to those who have overdosed, in an effort to revive the person. When fentanyl is ingested in any manner, it often takes several doses of Narcan to revive the person long enough to transport them to the hospital.
Recently, other illicit substances are also being found in toxicology screenings following overdose deaths. Carfentanyl is a substance that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Xylizene, a large animal tranquilizer that is deadly to humans, is also showing up in toxicology screenings in the Medical Examiner’s reports. Fentanyl test strips are available, which allow drug users to test their drugs for the deadly substance before using, but according to Delfunt, they are not 100 percent reliable.
Both Austin-Gatson and Delfunt stress that the game has definitely changed with respect to recreational drug use. There is no such thing as harmless experimentation. The possibility of using a substance just once, and dying from that experience, is very real. Parents have got to start having these conversations with their kids.
“We have got to attack this at every level,” said Austin-Gatson. “Spiritually, physically, educationally, as parents, as law enforcement, as members of the medical community, as members of the community at large, we have got to make everyone aware of the clear danger that is in our midst. Awareness is key.”
Austin-Gatson went on to say that illicit drugs are at the root of the spike in homicides seen over the past few years. They are at the root of much of the sex trafficking that plagues the country. Burglaries, robberies, even car jackings are often directly tied to drug trafficking and use. This is everyone’s problem.
“No one should have to bury their child,” the District Attorney said. “This has gotten very bad.”
(Updated 12/21 9:55am) Publisher/Editor Note: If you have been impacted by fentanyl and want to share your story, contact us.