Your neighbors are overdosing. So these Middle Georgia counties are suing

Will Everson blew out a knee when he was 16 years old, and the pain medication he took during recovery began a two-decade-long slide into drug addiction.

In time, his continued use of Lortab, Percocet and other drugs caused him to push away his family and some of his friends. But the drugs, which contained opiates — often prescribed to relieve pain — gave him a feeling he wanted to experience again and again.

Opioids disrupt pain signals, but they also activate the brain's reward areas by releasing the hormone dopamine. That creates a feeling of euphoria.

"I first started taking it to cover up pain, to manage pain," Everson said. "At a certain point, you have to take more and more and more. Once you get the pain under control through physical therapy, then you don’t want to deal with the pain of withdrawal. It’s a battle."

Even when a person can't go to a pharmacy to get painkillers such as dilaudid, oxycodone, fentanyl or hydrocodone, they can usually find someone else — sometimes a family member — who can get a doctor to prescribe it. There's also the option of purchasing them from a drug dealer. That can mean getting pills without knowing how strong they are or exactly what they contain, Everson said.

Everson, 40, said he has been clean for nearly two years. The Byron resident is involved in the lives of his children, and he has found steady employment.

And now he's on track to graduate from the intensive Bibb County Drug Court program, in which he and his classmates say they've developed a bond over the last year. It's a three-phase program that focuses on rehabilitation.

"I know the consequences. If I do take (drugs), I go to jail," Everson said during one of the program's recent classes. "After I was in the program, it gave me the structure I needed to get clean."

He said later, "If it it hadn't been for this program, I'd just be another statistic. Without a doubt, I'd be dead right now."

Sweeping epidemic

Everson's story — moving from prescription pain medications to addiction — is all too common these days.

Health and law enforcement experts say the country is in the midst of an epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that overdoses kill about five people each hour across the U.S., and opiate/opioid addiction is the leading cause of those overdoses.

During 2016, there were more than 63,600 overdose deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. About two-thirds of those, 42,249, involved an opioid.

New figures out this month showed that the problem is getting worse. In 45 states, opioid overdoses increased about 30 percent in a year.

It's all led to a bill in Congress that calls for spending $3.3 billion to deal with opiates and other costs associated with drug addiction, as well as for mental health programs.

President Donald Trump said recently that he wanted to stiffen penalties against drug dealers, perhaps seeking the death penalty against them.

The problem has hit home in the midstate as well.

"Marijuana still seems to be most prevalent drug we see, but prescription drugs, as well as heroin and in some cases the fake drugs, we’re seeing more and more of that," Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said during a recent Macon-Bibb County Commission meeting. "It's as much a law enforcement problem as it is a public health problem.

"We’re starting to see people who get the prescriptions for opioids and OxyContin, and they run out and get addicted, and that’s when they start looking to the streets to get a fix," Davis said.

Last year, there was a rash of overdoses — some deadly — due to people across Middle Georgia taking counterfeit opioid pills.

In 2016, 929 people across Georgia died after overdosing on opiates. That was more than double the number of deaths in 2010, when 426 people died, according to a state Department of Public Health study.

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine. Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin (including those in treatment) reported misusing prescription opioids first, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"What happens is the people who were on prescription opioid, they go out and are able to get heroin on the street," Davis said during the commission meeting. "It’s much more powerful and potent substance than what they would get in the prescription format."

When cocaine and crack were considered the drugs of choice, the demographics of the Drug Court classes "generally reflected the demographics of the county," said Bob Schwartz, the court's coordinator.

But it's different these days, said Schwartz, who has witnessed the impact of drugs in the community since 1981 while working as a Macon police officer, then joining the Drug Court program.

"Cocaine was the drug of choice. Then it changed to methamphetamine several years ago, and now opioids are on the rise," he said. "The educational level has also changed. We were basically an indigent (populated) program. Now we have more people that are high school graduates than we had before. We have more college graduates than we had before."

Opioid lawsuits

Some Middle Georgia governments are now joining lawsuits across the country against pharmaceutical companies and the distributors of opioid medications.

The suits are an attempt to recoup some of the costs associated with drug treatment and the court system.

Locally, the counties of Bibb, Houston, Monroe, Wilkinson, Twiggs and Laurens have agreed to join in.

The litigation is similar to the class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies that was settled in 1998 for $206 billion.

In this instance, the money would go directly to local governments instead of going through the state Attorney General's Office, attorney DuBose Porter said.

Porter is one of the lawyers representing some of the Middle Georgia governments, as well as other Georgia counties such as Augusta-Richmond and Columbus-Muscogee.

The suit revolves around why so much opiate medication has been "dumped" into markets, Porter said.

"This is the manufacturers or the wholesalers we're going after because of them not reporting what they should have for the number of opioids that have been released," Porter said.

The drastic number is also reflected in the number of emergency room visits for people who've overdosed from both prescribed and illegal opiates.

There were 2,435 emergency room visits and 1,709 hospitalizations in Georgia because of overdosing in 2016, according to the state health department.

"The premise is they have falsely marketed — not only to the public but to doctors — who have (prescribed) them to their patients," Houston County Administrator Barry Holland said.