After work one day in 2011, Zack Elliott returned home to his grandparents house in Newnan after they had fallen asleep. He grabbed the keys and drove to Atlanta to buy heroin. Just a few hours later, Elliott passed away from a fatal overdose.
Elliott’s mother, Robin, carries on his legacy. After her son passed away, she began working to ensure other parents don’t experience the same loss.
Along with nurse Laurie Fugitt, Robin Elliott co-founded Georgia Overdose Prevention, which works to educate, implement and develop resources for the medical amnesty law, according to its website.
Medical amnesty provides immunity from charges and arrests related to drug use or possession to people who report a potential overdose in good faith or for individuals in need of medical assistance. Georgia passed a medical amnesty law in 2014.
One of the organization’s main goals is to provide naloxone, an opioid reversal drug, to Georgia residents. Narcan is a commonly used nasal spray form of naloxone that is used to reverse opioid overdoses so people can get to medical treatment. Georgia Overdose Prevention has partners throughout the state who distribute Narcan to individuals for emergency use, including residents of Athens-Clarke County.
Overdoses in Athens
As the opioid epidemic continues to spread across the nation, Georgia has been no exception. In 2018, 1,396 people died from a drug overdose, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. This is a 30.83% increase from the 1,067 reported deaths in 2013.
In Athens-Clarke County, 12 people died in 2018 due to an overdose. Although the medical amnesty law aims to save lives by encouraging witnesses to call emergency services in the case of an overdose, the overdose problem persists.
In 2018, medical providers wrote 63.2 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people in Georgia, compared to the average U.S. rate of 51.4 prescriptions, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
At the University of Georgia, more students use the medical amnesty law for liquor law violations than reported drug overdoses. In 2019, the UGA Police Department had 85 reports of drug possession, according to the department’s annual crime statistics. Out of the reported cases, only 30 arrests were made.
Ali McCorkle, program director at local opioid addiction treatment center Athens Clinic, volunteers as a Narcan distributor for Georgia Overdose Prevention. After reaching out to the organization about five years ago to see how she could help, McCorkle said she’s been receiving Narcan for free to help her patients.
“We also go out into the community and do training for all sorts of places,” McCorkle said.
From her experience, many of the people who she trains are family members or friends with someone struggling with opioid use. As the program has developed, McCorkle said she has noticed an increase in people reaching out to be trained, which she credits to an increase in heroin and fentanyl.
Out of the patients in her program at Athens Clinic, McCorkle said four people have been saved by the Narcan kits she has distributed.
Riley Kirkpatrick works as a certified peer specialist at Alliance Recovery Center, an opioid treatment provider in Athens. Kirkpatrick understands firsthand the hardships that come with a journey to sobriety. Before he began helping people get sober, Kirkpatrick was addicted to heroin.
“It’s pretty amazing — like if you saw me now and you knew me back then … I’m unrecognizable,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said he started using heroin between the ages of 14 and 15 years old. After continued drug abuse while periodically trying to get sober, Kirkpatrick said he overdosed about a decade ago. At the time, Kirkpatrick said he fell unconscious after shooting up heroin. Someone with him had Narcan on hand and was able to administer it to him and reverse the overdose.
After a long road toward recovery with relapses and difficulties along the way, Kirkpatrick relocated to Athens in 2011. About eight months ago, roles reversed as Kirkpatrick found himself using Narcan to reverse another man’s overdose while working at Alliance.
When Kirkpatrick administered the Narcan and performed a sternum rub to wake the man up, the reversal drug successfully saved his life. The man was transported to the hospital shortly after.
“I so know what that’s like, to not think your life has value or is even worth living and just how incredibly powerful it is when somebody says I’m going to love on you no matter what you do, I’m going to love on you no matter who you are, I’m going to love on you whether you’re using or not,” Kirkpatrick said. “That is a powerful thing to be on the receiving end of.”
The medical amnesty legislation
In the immediate aftermath of her son’s death, Elliott heard talk of potential medical amnesty legislation to protect people suffering from an overdose. She decided to help out because she said she was “depressed and just looking for a reason to get out of bed every day.”
“I didn't know anything about getting a law passed, I’d never stepped foot in the capitol,” Elliott said. “I was just trying to put some meaning in my life.”
Before long, Elliott connected with Deloitte consultant Justin Leef, an integral part of the legislation-making process. Leef, who was a law student interning for state House Rep. Sharon Cooper at the time, lost multiple friends due to drug and alcohol overdoses. One of those friends was Zack, whom Leef had known since kindergarten.
While working for Cooper, Leef had to take time off to attend funerals for his friends. When Cooper questioned where he was spending his time, Leef said he told her that his friends were dying. Before long, he introduced the idea of a medical amnesty law.
Leef wrote the preamble to the bill and was largely responsible for much of the research that went into drafting the legislation. He said he used parts of other states’ legislation to pull together into “one comprehensive story about overdose prevention.”
As far as Cooper is concerned, her goal with the legislation was straightforward.
“Well, my intention was to save lives,” Cooper said. “We had young people, especially college-age students, out partying doing drugs or underage drinking and if one of their friends got into severe medical difficulty, they would often abandon them and let them die because they didn’t want to be charged themselves.”
Leef also encouraged family members of overdose victims to lobby for the legislation. He worked alongside Robin Elliott to stand on the stairs of the capitol and put faces and stories to the cause.
Georgia eventually passed House Bill 965, “Georgia 9-1-1 Medical Amnesty Law” in April 2014.