At a recent Addicts Anonymous meeting, not far from the Muscogee County Jail, a man dressed in a shirt and tie looked more like a professional than an alcoholic. But there he sat with marijuana smokers and crack addicts, each battling his or her own demon.
Michael Y., a college-educated local jeweler, lost his business, marriage and nearly his life because of a 30-year alcohol addiction. In June, he was arrested for the 38th time and charged with public intoxication. Michael is still on probation and attends daily AA meetings at the Safe House, a resource center for ex-offenders.
And that's where he finds peace.
"I'm from a middle-class family and some people come from the projects, but we're all the same in addiction," said Michael, a middle-aged white male, who asked not to be identified because he's looking for a job. "The people here have become like a family to me."
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Indeed, drugs are no respecters of persons. They can affect people of all backgrounds, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic status.
In 2012, an estimated 23.9 million Americans age 12 or older were current illicit drug users, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Substance and Mental Health Services Administration. That estimate represents 9.2 percent of the population within that age range.
Illicit drugs include marijuana/hashish, cocaine (including crack), heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants, as well as prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives used non-medically.
Josephine Ford is administrator for the Columbus Day Reporting Center on Second Avenue, an alternative program for drug addicts on probation. She said many of the people coming through the program are addicted to marijuana and crack. She's also beginning to see a lot of spice, which is synthetic marijuana.
"The drug problem here is pretty big when you look at what Columbus has been and what it is now," she said. "About 90 percent of our crime is based on substance abuse, whether it's people stealing and burglarizing to get money for drugs, or domestic violence, which sometimes has alcohol involved as well."
In Columbus, there has also been a peak in meth busts in recent weeks. Between Sept. 10 and Sept. 29, members of the police department's Special Operations Unit and other officers cleared more than three pounds of the synthetic drugs from the streets and arrested nine people. Police said they're also seeing a lot more people addicted to prescription medication such as oxycontin.
W.J. Rutland III, the assistant chief of parole in Columbus, said it's a misconception that particular drugs are isolated to certain demographics. Meth, one of the most recent popular drugs in Columbus, has the reputation of being exclusively associated with white users; however, the use of meth has the tendency to cross racial lines, including the manufacturing of the drug. He said cocaine used to be considered a status drug back in the 1980s, but that's no longer the case.
"Whatever becomes popular and is easy to get that's what becomes the trend," he said. "They call them by different names today. Some of the drugs are mixed cocktails. Molly is becoming popular."
Molly is a powder form of MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy.
Rutland said he's also seeing an increase in older drug users. Two years ago, he went to serve a warrant and was met at the door by the suspect's mother. Once entering, he detected a smell of marijuana smell inside the residence. He said the mother, a 60-year-old woman, originally falsely cited a medical condition as her reason for using marijuana.
"I had to tell her marijuana is not legal in the state of Georgia for medicinal purposes," he said. "It becomes a lifestyle. And as some people grow, the drug habit grows with them."
She subsequently admitted she had been smoking marijuana her whole life.
"It is not uncommon for individuals to claim true diagnosis as their ailment as their reason for using illegal drugs," Rutland said.
Bradford Health Services in Brookstone Centre serves adolescents and adults of all backgrounds. However, the majority of clients would be considered middle to upper class, said Angie Kopec, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at the center.
"A lot of people have stereotypes about downtown and the southside," she said. "But a lot of serious-hitting problems are what we get on the northside. It really is. There are more pharmaceuticals and more drug deals going down and it's happening right under people's eyes."
Kopec said alcohol has traditionally been the big hitter for all groups, and to some extent still is. But opiates like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone are on the rise and are becoming drugs of choice for many substance abusers.
With adolescents, Kopec said she's mainly seeing marijuana, along with some pharmaceutical drugs. Among young adults, ages 18 to the late 20s, she's seeing a switch from opiates to heroin, which is less expensive. She said drugs are available all over town.
"That's from southside to northside and from no income, to low income, to no income," she said. "We see doctors, nurses, people like that, they still have the pills and can give other people the pills. There is so much out there and it has no judgment on where you are from."
Kopec said most opiate addictions start with doctors prescribing the drugs for pain management. Patients run out of their prescriptions before they expire, then begin buying the pills off the streets or from coworkers.
About 70 percent of people addicted to drugs are employed and going to work every day, she said. They're able to function, while at the same time struggling with their addictions.
"We're seeing patients that come in that don't have a whole lot of abuse, misuse or use history, no genetic factors," she said. "But they're coming here with full-blown addiction to pharmaceuticals."
Kopec said for many people it's just a matter of "what's your flavor?"
"I have alcoholics that come in who never touched a pill. They never smoked a joint in their lives. What just made them go to alcohol and do that?" she asked. "I think with our teens and adolescents most of it is peer pressure that whatever the kids are doing they will do. It really depends on the person and situation."
Drugs and age
The SAMHSA research revealed trends and differences in local and national drug activity among different populations. In 2012, marijuana was by far the most commonly used illicit drug, according to the survey, called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. There were 18.9 million people using the drug, an increase of 1.5 percent since 2007.
The number of cocaine users dropped to 1.6 million between 2007 and 2012, but the number of heroin users doubled to 669,000.
The percentage of meth users decreased between 2006 and 2012, from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent of the population. Despite the low percentage in the overall United States, the frequency of meth use and criminal activity associated with the drug are much higher in Columbus and the region.
Sixty-seven percent of all illicit drug users were employed, while only 18 percent were unemployed.
The rate of current use of illicit drugs among young adults age 18 to 25 increased from 18 percent to 21 percent between 2008 and 2012, driven largely by an increase in marijuana.
Illicit drug use also increased significantly for adults ages 50 to 64 over the past decade. That trend partially reflects the aging of baby boomers, whose rates of illicit drug use have been higher than those of older cohorts, the report said.
When it came to alcohol, the survey revealed that nearly a quarter of people ages 12 or older were binge alcohol drinkers, amounting to about 60 million people.
"Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the 30 days prior to the survey," the study said.
Race, gender and education
Nationally, higher percentages of men reported using marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, crack and pain relievers.
A higher percentage of the white population used drugs than the black population in all categories, except crack.
The federal government considers Hispanic an ethnicity, not a race, and includes those numbers in black and white categories based on skin tone.
The survey also found:
Whites were the dominant group among all races when it came to alcohol. Eighty-seven percent said they had used alcohol. That compared to 75 percent of blacks, 76 percent of Native Americans/Alaskans and 74 percent of 66 percent Asians.
The percentage of people using alcohol increased with educational attainment. Fifty-six percent of people with less than a high school degree reported having used alcohol, 86 percent of those with a high school diploma, and 91 percent with three to four years of college.
The percentage of alcohol use was highest among youths 18-25 (84 percent) and people 26 to 49 years old (90 percent). Eighty percent of people 50 or older said they had used alcohol.
The Native Americans/Alaskan Natives category had the highest percentage of people who had used cocaine. Seventeen percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks had used the drug. The highest percentage of cocaine users was among people with three years of college (19 percent). The drug was more prevalent with people ages 35-49 years old (20 percent).
With marijuana, the statistics were pretty even. Forty-six percent of whites, 40 percent of blacks and 50 percent of Native Americans/Alaskans said they had used the drug. Only 17 percent of people ages 12 to 17 said they had used marijuana compared to an average of 52 percent of those ages 18 to 49. Thirty-five percent of people 50 and older said they had used marijuana.
Fifteen percent of whites, 11 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Native Americans/Alaskans and 5 percent of Asians had used pain relievers.