N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein on Thursday outlined what he described as a comprehensive strategy of prevention, treatment and enforcement to combat a growing opioid epidemic that’s killing four people across the state each day.
Speaking before a gathering of law officers, politicians and activists in downtown Raleigh, Stein said thwarting the epidemic is a top priority. He noted that during his travels across the state, “more often than not, someone comes and shares a story about their experience and losing control of their lives” as a consequence of prescription drug and heroin addiction: The high school baseball pitcher who was about to attend college on a scholarship but then injured his shoulder and was prescribed opioids after surgery; the worker who hurt his back on the job and lost his family under similar circumstances; or the daughter who started out doing pills for fun and ended up hooked on heroin.
“It’s time to put an end to this scourge,” Stein said.
The fifth annual Law Enforcement Summit on Heroin and Fentanyl mirrored a nationwide trend by law enforcement that is starting to view drug addiction as a public health issue rather than simply a crime. Advocates and members of law enforcement who participated in the summit at the N.C. Museum of History touted compassionate prevention and treatment options that include education that targets young people, providing more long-term treatment options and expanding syringe and needle exchange programs, as well as police and sheriff departments redirecting low-level drug offenders or sex workers to treatment programs and services, instead of jail and prosecution.
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“I never thought I would see a day where we could go out on the street and pass out syringes and give people cookers and stuff,” said Jesse Garner, a former heroin user who is now an outreach specialist with the Fayetteville Police Department and a church pastor.
Garner said the “new” epidemic called for patience, but most of all compassion. Garner, who is African-American, said from his perspective the epidemic isn’t new at all.
“In my experience, the epidemic has been going on for a lot of years, as far back as I can remember,” he said. “Back when the police told you to ‘get down’ and wanted to know ‘who sold you the drugs.’ ”
Frankie Roberts, the African-American director of a Wilmington non-profit that provides shelter and services for the formerly incarcerated, called for more forums that focus on crack cocaine and mass incarceration.
“That still haunts communities of color, really bad,” Roberts said.
Stein’s concerns about doctors over-prescribing opioid medications was bolstered after the summit, when Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, made public a letter that asked the state’s doctors help turn the tide in the crisis.
“The roots of this national and state crisis trace back nearly two decades when physicians and other clinicians were encouraged to treat pain more aggressively, and patients were counseled that all pain could be readily and quickly controlled without long-term negative impacts,” Cohen wrote. “We now know much more about the highly addictive properties of opioids and the complex social and economic factors that have created the perfect storm resulting in this crisis.”
The summit was sponsored by the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide grassroots organization that advocates and provides services for law enforcement and people impacted by drug use, incarceration, sex work, HIV and hepatitis. The opioid crisis has become more widespread since the organization held a similar summit last year.
“By June of last year when I attended the summit, we had none,” Capt. Bob Adams with the Fuquay-Varina Police Department, referring to the number of heroin and opioid overdoses. “And then by November, we had seven. It was definitely eye-opening.”
Fentanyl, an opioid medication 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin or morphine, was the cause of death in at least one of the fatal overdoses in Fuquay-Varina. It was also cited by state toxicologists as a cause of death in at least two overdoses in Cary in late November and one in Durham County earlier this year.
NC Harm spokeswoman Tessie Castillo said both the Apex and Fuquay-Varina police departments decided to equip their officers with Naloxone after the overdoses.
Nationwide, recreational use of the fentanyl and similar synthetic drugs caused thousands of deaths between 2000 and 2015. In North Carolina, there were 108 fentanyl overdoses in 2010. Last year, there were 352, according to the state medical examiner’s office. By comparison, 44 people in North Carolina died of heroin overdoses in 2010. Last year heroin accounted for 397 deaths.
Stein counseled patience tempered with compassion to overcome a growing crisis that he says began at least 20 years ago.
“We will not get over it overnight,” he said.