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MS Health Divide

Mississippi’s Drug-Related Overdoses and Deaths Continue to Rise

By journalism students Anna Caroline Barker and Dayna Drake

MISSISSIPPI – James Moore, family bike shop owner and an advocate for addiction recovery, lost his son Jeffrey Moore back in 2015 to heroin laced with fentanyl.

“When you arrive at the emergency room, it’s never a good thing to be told to go wait in the family room,” Moore said, “but we were directed to the family room. It seemed like an eternity. After about an hour, the door opened. The doctor and his assistant came in, and we could see from the look on his face that Jeffrey was gone.”

Since 2015, drug overdoses have seen a steady incline, especially in the past year and a half. In 2020, the Center for Disease and Control reported a record number of drug-related deaths at nearly 93,000, which translates into roughly 11 deaths an hour, or 250 each day. In Mississippi alone, these deaths rose by 34.9 percent in the last year, increasing from 387 deaths to an estimated 522 deaths. Steven Maxwell, Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, says that it’s safe to call this drug issue an epidemic. 

“What we’re seeing right now is predominately the use of illicit fentanyl and methamphetamine by those in the state of Mississippi,” Maxwell said. “You know, [those] who are partakers of the drug culture.”

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, says the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Originally made for pain management, particularly in cancer patients, its powerful properties can be diverted to abuse. The effects of this drug include an intense, short term high accompanied by relaxation, euphoria and pain relief. But, when used improperly, can cause sedation, confusion, nausea, vomiting, fainting, seizures and even death.

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These overdoses are in part driven by the sudden rise in fentanyl sales. According to data from the CDC, fentanyl takes up about 60% of overdose deaths. The reason this percentage remains so high is because of its involvement in “street drugs.” Many individuals who participate in drugs recreationally are typically unaware of the potentially dangerous substances in what they would consider a “safe” drug. While fentanyl is usually mixed with heroin to increase its effects, cases of fentanyl being found in marijuana have been reported, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. In 2020, opioid-related overdoses resulted in nearly 324 deaths, 113 of which were fentanyl-related. Of these 113 fentanyl-related deaths, 79 were prescription-related, and 45 involved heroin. 

Dr. David Vearrier, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says that synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, are often claimed to be heroin when sold to addicts. 

“In some markets, 50% of interdicted heroin is actually fentanyl,” Vearrier said. “The fentanyl is diluted, or ‘cut,’ similar to what dealers do with heroin, but there is the potential for a strong batch of fentanyl to cause a jump in overdose deaths.”

Wayne County narcotics officer Geoff Paton continues to witness this problem first hand, as opioids become a growing issue in the Mississippi Pine Belt. He, along with the rest of his team, are in charge of keeping this problem under control by seizing these drugs from both buyers and dealers. From simple home visits to major drug busts, this team makes the safety and well-being of Wayne County residents a top priority. Right now, fentanyl is the biggest problem at hand.

“This stuff is strong, and it can be absorbed through the skin,” Paton said. “It’s just bad.”

According to Paton, the biggest trend they are seeing right now is pressed fentanyl pills disguised as prescribed painkillers. These pressed pills have become such a growing issue that Officer Paton has to bring his furry companion, Jagger, to home-visits to sniff out any potential illegal substances.

“If I’ve got reasonable suspicion that someone has illegal narcotics in their home, that’s when I bring Jagger,” Paton said.

Paton says that special protective gloves and gear are necessary when it comes to handling fentanyl cases.

“We take extra precaution as far as dealing with [fentanyl], especially searching houses and cars,” Paton said. “We know what fentanyl does and what the outcome can lead to.”

He then explained an incident in which a SWAT team raided a dealer’s home, but nearly everything in the residence was doused with fentanyl.

“Everything that the SWAT team touched had [fentanyl] on it, and it was immediately absorbed through their skin,” Paton said. “They all dropped like flies.”

Wendy Bailey, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, says one of the reasons for the substance abuse increase is the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“You’ve got fear and worry for your health and the health of your loved ones,” Bailey said. “A lot of people are experiencing anxiety from job loss or illness and a lot of people have turned to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.”

The opioid epidemic, which is believed to be due to over-prescribing, has been the focus of drug intervention in recent years. In efforts to put this issue to rest, state agencies are making collaborative efforts such as implementing stiffer regulations, further education on opioid drugs and writing fewer prescriptions. 

The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics also claims that a possible reason that this portion of the state suffers from this issue so greatly could be due to its location. Mississippi’s spot on the map is considered an economic sector for drug trafficking. 

The small, quaint town of Waynesboro, MS with just over 5,000 residents sits on the county seat of Wayne County down in the Mississippi Pine Belt. Narrow country roads wind through a serene sea of deep green pine trees leading all the way to the busy US Highway 84, which to many is a quick and easy route to get to the beach for a warm getaway. Little do these travelers know that it’s also a main connector to one of the most highly-used drug trafficking highways in the country, US Highway 45. 

This busy north-to-south highway is a major corridor that begins in south Alabama and runs through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and ends in north Wisconsin. US 45 also contains many connecting east-to-west highways, US 84 being one of them, making it a hub for drug trafficking.

Pressed pills confiscated by Wayne County narcotics officers.

Vearrier says that Mississippi operates a prescription drug monitoring program allowing physicians, pharmacies and certain state agencies to monitor the number of opioid prescriptions filled by patients in Mississippi.

“[The purpose of this program] is so that we can minimize opioid misuse or abuse occurring across state lines,” Vearrier said. 

Vearrier also states that the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure additionally requires prescribers with DEA certificates to undergo training related to the prescription of controlled substances every two years. However, for those already addicted, this decrease in prescriptions didn’t help cure their addiction. 

The Road to Recovery

At mile 10, Moore has a memorial set up for his son.

Moore owns a bicycle shop in Hattiesburg right next to a bike trail where recovering addicts are free to ride bikes to clear their mind. On the tenth mile of this trail, there is a memorial dedicated to Jeffrey.

“I like to come out here occasionally and just sit,” Moore said. “And I’ll look at some pictures of Jeffrey fishing and other things that we’ve done.”

The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics along with other Mississippi law enforcement continue to make efforts to decrease drug-related overdoses and deaths by encouraging addicts to get help and make more resources available to those struggling and those who wish to get further education. 





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