Within an hour on May 26, police were called to the homes of two Lawrenceville teens who lived down the street from each other and had died of overdoses in separate events.
The deaths also happened the morning after county, state and federal officials held a summit in Lawrenceville to highlight the opioid drug epidemic in Gwinnett County, and the need for resources to fight it. Kathi Abraham — whose son, Joseph, was one of the two teens who died — had attended that meeting to learn more about the issue.
“It was that night that I learned about fentanyl actually,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of it as a parent struggling with my son for four years prior to this. I had no idea that the next morning that I would find my son, along with Dustin (Manning), we live in the same neighborhood, that we would find our boys victims of this.”
Abraham, her husband, David, and Dustin’s parents, Lisa and Greg Manning, joined state Sen. Renee Unterman, Superior Court Judge Kathryn Schrader and the parents of other people who had died of overdoses at a press conference in Atlanta on Friday to once again bring attention to the drug issue in Georgia.
Schrader and Unterman are calling on residents to get involved in the fight against addiction by helping to make sure their communities have needed resources to fight addictions. They are also calling for more transition and recovery centers and more funding for state agencies to fight opioid drug use and help people kick their addictions.
“My community desperately needs a transition center, a recovery center, a therapeutic center so that we don’t allow people who have gotten so wrapped up in substance abuse disorders to get in to the system and then be released before they can find appropriate care,” Schrader said.
“I believe that now it’s our duty and our burden to make sure that we have brick and mortar appropriate care in every community in this state and in every community in this country.”
Unterman said “The most important thing is education — that’s what we’re doing here on a holiday weekend — prevention and most importantly therapeutic services.”
Although opioids include a range of drugs, there are three that were highlighted at the press conference on Friday: Heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil.
GBI Director of Public Affairs Nelly Miles said the drugs that are hitting the street are becoming more mixed. Heroin could have fentanyl — which is supposed to be administered by a doctor in small doses through a patch — mixed in with it. More recently, the elephant tranquilizer, carfentanil, began showing up in drug mixes as well, Miles said.
“We realized that those individuals that are profiting from putting these poisons on the streets started to change the formula a little bit,” she said. “We saw this with designer drugs. That’s the whole purpose. They are making these drugs to get around existing drug laws.”
Miles showed small vials of heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil to show how much of each drug it takes to overdose. Heroin required the largest amount, nearly a quarter of a vial. Fentanyl required the next largest amount although it was significantly smaller — only a few flakes — and the carfentanil container was virtually empty. It had a single flake in it.
“This just goes to show how little it takes,” she said.
For the Abrahams and the Mannings, the fact that opioid addiction can happen to anyone is something they know all too well.
Kathi Abraham said her son, who was 19, was an athlete who liked kayaking, fishing and hiking. He also liked to play the piano.
About four years ago, we found that he had begun experimenting with marijuana and possibly drinking,” she said. “We didn’t know if this was normal teenage experimentation or if there was something more. When he was in ninth grade, we began him in therapy, so he would go to weekly therapy.
“I’m not sure how much that actually helped him because he was very much of a charmer and could tell his story the way he wanted it to come off.”
Abraham said she and her husband saw the drug use escalate. He dropped out of school when he was in the eleventh grade, but eventually got his GED. He went to a rehab facility in Pennsylvania as well. There was a stint in jail for nonviolent crimes, but his mother said he continued to struggle despite dreams of doing something better with his life.
“He had some really good days,” she said. “We thought we had some really good conversations, and the next thing we know, we find him in his room (on May 26).”
Abraham and Dustin Manning knew each other. Dustin’s parents said the pair played on the same little league team, and they had gotten into trouble together in the past.
“I coached them in little league,” Greg Manning said. “I mean, it was a normal life and all of a sudden addiction kicked in. Both of them fought a similar but very separate battle. The best advice we can give anyone who is going through this is stay in tune with your child. Don’t let them revert back to a solitary state. Don’t let them go into their rooms by themselves.
“Ask them what’s wrong because that’s when they are dealing with something in their minds. They are trying to work through the shame and the guilt.”
Still, Dustin’s mother said that while the drugs the pair overdosed on appeared to be similar, they did not die together. Lisa Manning works at the drug rehabilitation center that her son went to, and she and her husband had made Dustin take a drug test the night before he died.
“He was clean,” she said. “He obviously had an urge, or we don’t know what, but it wasn’t very much from what we understand and what little he did relapse from killed him.”
Unterman plans to push for more funding in the next state budget, but she said the state’s budget discussions are in their early stages so she’s not sure how much money will be asked for yet.
One area she wants to secure extra funding for, however, is toxicology testing done at the GBI’s lab so it has more resources to quickly identify which drugs caused a person’s death.
The Mannings and the Abrahams, for example, are still waiting for the results of their son’s toxicology test so they can find out which drug he overdosed on. They believe it was fentanyl, but they won’t know for sure until the results come back.
“It’s not fair to these parents to ask that question, ‘What did your son die of?’ and they have to wait maybe three months or six months and don’t know what (their loved ones) died of,” Unterman said. “It’s also good for intelligence in the law enforcement community to know exactly what’s on the street and what people are dying from.”