By LYDIA BERGLAR
In 2022, Dade County had 45 known drug overdoses. Five of those resulted in death, all of people under the age of 40. One of those deaths was a pregnant woman, making the total count six lives lost.
The overdose number is the same as it was in 2021 (45), but compared to 2019 and 2020, overdoses are on the rise. In 2019, there were only nine overdoses in the county. In 2020, there were 29.
The Sentinel sat down with Sheriff Ray Cross and Sergeant Chad Payne (public information officer) to discuss the issue. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) made 102 drug-related arrests throughout 2022, 36 of which were related to fentanyl. Cross reported that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had 687 fentanyl-related cases in 2021 which rose to 921 cases in 2022.
On Jan. 5, the sheriff’s office shared that several traffic stops led to seizures of drugs and firearms, resulting in arrests for “drug trafficking, possession with the intent to distribute drugs, and other related felonies.”
The majority of the crime in Dade County is related to drugs. Payne explained, “In investigations, the majority of our thefts, burglaries, and things of that nature stem back to drug use. [Drug users] sell items to buy drugs and also trade power tools and things like that for drugs. They figured out that we watch the pawn shops.”
According to the sheriff’s office, drugs are largely not being produced in the county. Cross explained, “From what we’re hearing from the people we arrest, a lot of it’s coming out of Chattanooga. A lot of these stronger drugs – fentanyl and meth – come over from China and they come up from Mexico to Atlanta. From Atlanta, they go out to suburbs and other jurisdictions.”
Payne added, “I can’t tell you the last time we encountered a meth lab. It’s been years.” Cross said, “People don’t cook meth like they used to because of the restrictions on buying the pseudofed needed to produce it. It’s cheaper now to buy meth than it is to produce it.”
They explained that the only way to get to the dealers is by getting the users. “We hate that for the users,” said Payne. “Do we think that locking somebody up is going to get them off drugs? Probably not. But we’re charged with enforcing the law so we have a mandate to do it.”
Cross added, “We’ll arrest them, but we try to help them once they’re in here. We’re not here just to put people in jail. Our main goal is to change lives and get this community off of this stuff.”
They reported that fentanyl is beginning to be a big competitor with meth. Payen added, “We’re starting to see cocaine pop up more and heroin occasionally. MDMA is making a comeback here, and we’re starting to see them mixing fentanyl with other illegal drugs. The other day, we found what used to be called a speedball, a mixture of fentanyl and MDMA (ecstasy).”
Cross explained the history of fentanyl, saying, “Fentanyl was designed to help cancer patients with the pain. A private company produced fentanyl, and they also produce Narcan which stops the effects of fentanyl, so they’re profiting off of both ends of that spectrum. They say it was never intended to get to the public, but it did, and now it’s widespread.”
He added that when fentanyl users get out of jail, they often return to the dose they were using before being arrested. “That’s why they’re dying. They think they can go back to the same dosage they were using, but their bodies are intolerant to that amount.”
When asked if the office has encountered drug dealers targeting children or Halloween candy laced with fentanyl (or other drugs), Payne and Cross said they have not had any experience in Dade with any type of drug dealer targeting children.
Beyond overdoses and deaths, drug use leads to a number of other issues. Cross said, “It leads to family problems, thefts, people not working and doing drugs all day long.” Payne said, “Addiction affects so many things beyond just the person using drugs. It can affect so many other parts of life.”
Cross recalled, “One Saturday, my wife and I pulled up to the house of a parent. He smiled when he saw me, but I had to tell him that we just found his son with a needle in his arm and he was deceased. Chad and I have had to do that several times. That affects us as officers.”
Cross believes in taking proactive steps to combat the issue. C.H.A.M.P.S. (which starts in fifth grade in Georgia schools) encourages children to stay away from drugs, and the DCSO put on an opioid awareness event on the town square.
Cross and Payne also note the success of Celebrate Recovery (which works to help users overcome drug addiction) and our local Hand Up Ministry.
They stressed that addiction doesn’t discriminate, with Cross saying, “There are so many different aspects [that lead to drug addiction]. It doesn’t matter if you’re a middle class family, upper class, or low income.”
Payne added, “I know people who are in wealthy families and families who have raised their kids right, but their children still get hooked on opioids. Sometimes it starts with marijuana or being on a prescription medication, and they eventually graduate to something like fentanyl or heroin.”
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force is one way that sheriff’s offices and police departments work together to find the dealers. Cross explained, “The task force works big cases, drug cartel cases. They do wiretaps and everything.”
He continued, “I’m on the control board of the drug task force with several other sheriffs. I’ve got two people on the task force right now. It’s been around for 30 or 40 years, and most of the counties in our circuit have an officer or two on it.”
Cross and Payne mentioned several instances where addicts have turned their lives around. In the midst of such a devastating issue, these stories bring some hope to officers and addicts alike.
Cross recalled, “One day, a girl came in and said she wanted to thank me because I saved her life. I didn’t remember, but she said I helped her get help when she was hooked on drugs. Another time we arrested a son and father who were covered in bite marks from being high on meth and biting each other. The father has now been off of it for over ten years. He’s one of the very few who made a big turnaround.”
He continued, “This job is a ministry to me. The Lord put me here, and I’m in this seat until God says it’s time for somebody else.”
Payne also sees his work as ministry, saying, “If you ask me about my faith, I’ll talk about it all day long, but we don’t force it on anybody.”