As President Barack Obama closes out the last months of his second term, the U.S. Justice Department is making a nationwide push to draw attention to the opioid and heroin crisis claiming more lives than either car wrecks or gun violence.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch will crisscross the country this week to announce a new initiative that calls for additional funding from Congress for treatment programs.
John Bruce, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, a 44-county region spanning from Raleigh to the coast, gathered news crews at the federal courthouse on Monday to announce what steps will be taken in North Carolina.
The U.S. Attorney’s offices in North Carolina’s three federal districts will work in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to form the Federal Opioid Reduction Alliance for North Carolina.
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Since 2012, North Carolina has had 3,415 deaths from opioid overdoses, according to the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The number, federal prosecutors say, is likely under-representative of the actual number of people killed by the deadly drugs.
Opioids are compounds that bind to the brain's opioid receptors, blocking pain and slowing breathing. The drugs trigger the release of dopamine, and new users typically feel a calm, happy high while under the influence. Regular users develop a tolerance to the drugs, requiring more and more to achieve the same effect.
Across the country in recent years, overdose deaths tied to opiates have skyrocketed as part of a growing abuse of heroin as well as prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet.
The number of those related deaths quadrupled to nearly 28,700 in 2014 from 2000, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The widening epidemic can be traced to the 1990s, when doctors began to treat pain more aggressively.
Prescriptions for hydrocodone or oxycodone, which are also known by brand names Vicodin and OxyContin, have skyrocketed over the years, from 76 million in 1991 to nearly 259 million in 2012, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has said. As of 2013, hydrocodone, the generic version of Vicodin, was prescribed to more Medicare patients than any other drug, according to a ProPublica project.
Bruce said Monday that some of the heroin abuse is related to people who became addicted to prescribed opiates but could no longer get prescriptions filled.
“Increasingly, the gateway drug is the prescription opioids,” Bruce said.
This week, the U.S. Attorney’s offices in North Carolina will hold special sessions with law enforcement officials to discuss issues related to the epidemic. On Thursday, Bruce’s office will hold a Town Hall meeting at the Pullen Park Community Center in Raleigh from 6 to 8 p.m. to hear from people affected by the crisis and also share some of the new alliance’s strategy for combating it.
In addition to increasing enforcement actions, with special focus on the Wilmington area and tri-county region of Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson, the task force will work to share more statistics and intelligence throughout North Carolina and across state borders.
They will work with the schools to educate children about the risks associated with opiates and develop partnerships with physicians and others in the medical community to try to identify people who might be at risk for abuse.
There also will be a legislative policy element to the strategic plan, prosecutors say, so laws can be developed or tweaked to help with enforcement actions, establish needle exchanges and distribute Naloxone, which is administered through the nose or injected with a needle to block opiate receptors in the brain and halt the effects of heroin. They also will talk about regulations surrounding the prescribing and distribution of opiates.
“This is a nationwide public health problem,” Bruce said. “We need to do much more.”
A chance to speak out
What: Community Town Hall on the crisis surrounding heroin and opiate abuse.
When: Thursday, 6 to 8 p.m.