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From Detroit to Knoxville, Rising Number of Drug Overdoses Lead to Response

Firefighters with the Knoxville Fire Department are seeing an increased number of overdose calls over the past few years.

“I ran it in people’s homes, I’ve ran it in grocery stores, I’ve ran it in gas station parking lots. I’ve ran it in hotels, motels. There is no rhyme or reason to where people are using it and how they're using it. It’s becoming a city wide problem," said Christopher Patterson, a Knoxville Firefighter for the past 14 years.

Patterson said overdose calls are becoming commonplace for many fire stations.

"Unfortunately we are running them sometimes once a shift, sometimes two or three times a shift and there have been companies, I think, that run four or five overdoses a day," he added.

Before working for KFD, Patterson was a firefighter in Detroit, where most of the illegal opioid drugs in Knoxville come from, according to the Knox County District Attorney's Office.

"It was a common thing up there and I don’t know if I was blind to it up there maybe, but down here it’s just becoming all the time," Patterson said.

In 2015, KFD administered the life saving drug Naloxone, which reverses a drug overdose, 52 times. In 2016 it jumped to 122 times. So far, just four months into 2017, they've administered Naloxone 118 times.

The highest number of drug overdose calls so far in 2017 have come from the zip code 37921, which spans a large area from Mechanicsville up Western Avenue toward Ball Camp Pike. Naloxone has been administered 38 times in that zip code.

The second highest area with 20 calls so far this year is inside zip code 37917, which includes parts of North Knoxville west from Interstate 275 and south from Interstate 640.

"It’s definitely an addiction, it’s a big big time addiction that we need to find an answer for. We need to find a way to treat it, at least curb it. It’s destroying a lot of lives,” Patterson added.

A recently formed opioid overdose death investigation task force is reviewing data and finding trends to tackle the number of overdose deaths. The Knoxville Police Department is the lead agency and is working with the Knox County District Attorney General's Office, the Knox County Medical Examiner, Knox County Sheriff's Office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, as well as Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA).

"“We are surprised to find that actual heroin is a very low number of the drug that is actually killing people," said Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen.

She said, from the statistics they are seeing, most people are dying from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid drug.

"We are finding a lot of synthetic drugs that are actually in the folks that are overdosing as compared to the folks that we are saving who don’t know that they are taking that. They all think that they are just doing heroin," Allen said.

She also said the majority of the fentanyl-laced drugs are coming to Knoxville from Detroit.

This week, Allen's office obtained convictions against two ringleaders for selling large amounts of heroin and a combination of cocaine and fentanyl posed as Heroin.

"We know that that’s where they are coming from and we are able to use the new laws on the books and to use these new task forces to hit those folks,” she added.

Allen's office is working to stop the drug pipeline, one conviction at a time.

“The further up the chain we can go the more successful we are in shutting down the deaths and shutting down the drugs coming into our community and the further up the chain we go, we do find that it’s the upper northeast and usually it’s Detroit," she said.

For Patterson, a Detroit native, it's the same problem but seen in a different city. He said it shows how there are no boundaries for this drug epidemic.

"We need to get a grip on it and we need to find a way to deal with it," Patterson said.

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