Now, thanks in large part to the work of Lt. Tanya Smith, the Holly Springs Police Department will soon become the first department in the state to change that.
Beginning June 4, the city’s officers, who arrive before medical personnel when someone overdoses, will be able to administer a drug called naloxone, also known as Narcan, which officials say can reverse the effects of opiate overdose in an instant.
Smith pushed for the program and the new state law that made it possible following her own daughter’s drug-related death in 2013.
Smith said naloxone has been around for decades and is used often by emergency medical personnel. But it wasn’t available for police to give in Georgia until the 2014 legislative session, when the state House and Senate gave overwhelming support to the Georgia 9-1-1 Medical Amnesty Law. The multi-part bill grants immunity to those who call 911 to report drug overdoses and qualifies police to give Naloxone.
As in other states already letting police give the drug, the Holly Springs lieutenant expects the results to be overwhelmingly positive in Georgia.
“There are agencies that have reported up into the thousands of lives they have saved,” she said. “That’s a lot parents who won’t have to bury their kids.”
Smith was among those from around the state to push for the law, although it wasn’t just her work in law enforcement that made her interested.
In August, Smith’s 20-year-old daughter, Taylor, was found dead and abandoned outside of a trailer in Jasper.
Police believed the former Creekview High School cheerleader and graduate was dumped there after she had been using methamphetamine and had a fatal asthma attack. Four people were arrested in relation to the incident.
Had the amnesty bill been law that night, Smith thinks someone might have called 911 for her daughter and she would be alive today.
And although the 20-year-old’s death resulted from methamphetamine use, Smith said heroin, an opiate, is truly what led to her demise. Taylor Smith had started using methamphetamine in a futile and ill-advised attempt to curb her heroin cravings. An acquaintance — who sold methamphetamine — told Taylor Smith it would help her get off heroin, and she believed it.
Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, supported the new law and was there when Smith testified during a tearful legislative committee hearing earlier this year, telling her story.
“It broke everybody down,” Rotondo remembered. “There wasn’t anybody who would’ve voted no to that.”
Smith originally was pushing the state just to grant amnesty to people who call 911 to report drug overdoses, because she felt that could’ve saved her daughter. But in doing her research on naloxone, she found she had a more personal reason to support it as well.
One night in February 2012, Taylor Smith overdosed and was given a drug as an ambulance was taking her to the hospital. Smith said it almost instantly woke her up. But the mother, overwhelmed to see her daughter spring back to life, didn’t think to ask what the drug was. Earlier this year, she found out it was naloxone.
Smith said her daughter struggled with heroin addiction for two years before the sickness took her life. And she said she wasn’t alone in turning to the increasingly easy-to-buy and ages-old drug as a cheaper alternative to pain pills.
“Heroin was cheaper than prescription pills. That is why the transition to heroin is happening,” Tanya Smith said. “That’s why it’s no longer just your (junkies). These are affluent people that are turning to heroin. I worked with a mother whose son was an Eagle Scout … an Eagle Scout.”
Because of the prevalence of opiate-derived pain pills, she said more people accidentally overdose by forgetting they’ve taken the medicine, or, in some cases, by taking the pills as directed.
There are also instances where young children get into drugs at home and take them, which Smith said should spur everyone to keep a prescription of the drug at home. She said it has no other effect other than to stop opiate overdose. She keeps it at her house, though no one who might need it is there anymore.
Holly Springs Police Chief Ken Ball has also seen the increase in opiate use spike in recent years.
“We’re seeing such a dramatic increase in opiate overdoses through, as I call them, ‘pill mills,’ where doctors are prescribing opiates and painkillers,” he said. More and more, 911 calls about overdoses are taking officers into homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and not just trailers, he said.
But without naloxone, Ball said those calls can be torturous for officers, who for years could only give CPR or other basic forms of aid as they waited for an ambulance.
“It’s a totally helpless feeling,” he said. “It’s a helpless feeling when you’re watching somebody die, and there’s nothing you can do.”
On June 4 at 1 p.m., though, all of Holly Springs’ police officers will gather at First Baptist Church of Holly Springs and be trained to give naloxone, which comes in the form of a nasal spray. The public is invited to attend.
Once it’s over, the chief, like Smith, hopes Holly Springs officers might no longer feel so hopeless, and those people who overdose — rich, poor, young, old, whomever — might have at least a better chance at living.
“Simply put, we’re giving them a second chance,” Ball said. “Administering this stuff, is it going to get them off of opiates? No. Absolutely not. It’s a warning to these people, ya know, ‘You died, and if the first responders hadn’t had this stuff, you’d be gone. So now grab ahold of your life and get off of this stuff.’”