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3 People Die Of Heroin Overdoses In Chattanooga In 4 Days

Three people died in Chattanooga near the end of last week of heroin overdoses over a four-day period.

In 2014 at least 1,263 Tennesseans died from an opioid overdose - an increase of 97 deaths from 2013.

Those are reported cases and the actual number is believed to be higher.

Law enforcement and drug treatment specialists say it is a growing epidemic, but not much has been written about it.

At the local Drug Court, heroin cases are definitely on the rise after years of being almost off the radar.

Tommy Farmer, a Chattanoogan who heads the TBI's Dangerous Drugs Task Force, notes that the group was formerly known as the Tennessee Meth and Pharmaceutical Task Force. However, there are now additional drugs to worry about - like heroin.

Director Farmer said pain pill abuse is a major health and safety problem in Tennessee. Only Alabama has a higher rate of pain pill use.

He said some steps have been taken to curb the pill abuse, including setting up a statewide data system that allows doctors to see which medication their patients have gotten from other physicians or pain clinics.

There has also been a push to shut down "pill mills" that focus on profit instead of sensible prescribing of medications.

Director Farmer said some of the advances against pill abuse have turned some addicts in the direction of heroin, which is relatively cheap. For $10 to $20, a supply lasting several doses can be obtained from a street dealer.

He said with states like California and Colorado legalizing marijuana that some Mexican drug dealers have been plowing up their marijuana fields and planting poppies for heroin production.

Director Farmer said the most dangerous form of heroin is when it has been cut and the highly-potent Fentanyl synthetic added. He said when that is the case and the Fentanyl is in powder form that it can become air-borne and pose serious health concerns. He said in those cases that law enforcement officers often have to do cleanup wearing full protective garb.

Director Farmer said several Chattanooga physicians have been involved in an effort to write chronic pain guidelines aimed at helping doctors in prescribing for pain.

He notes, "The opioids that are prescribed so often do not have any curative power. They just mask the pain.

Medical professionals say that aspirin or ibuprofen work as well."

He adds, "Pain can be a good thing. It is telling you that something is wrong with your body that needs to be fixed."

Director Farmer said, "People don't just wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to become a heroin addict.' Sometimes it may start when they are young and have some sort of injury. They are prescribed pain medication and they keep relying on heavier and heavier doses."

He said at some point the doctors are not going to prescribe that powerful a dosage and the insurance companies are not going to pay for it.

"So they turn to the streets and get started on heroin," he said.

The effects, he said, can be fatal for the addict and "crushing" for family members left behind.

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