In the town of Nashville, about 45 miles east of Raleigh, anyone who wants to kick an addiction to heroin or opioid painkillers can call the police.
In February, Nashville police launched the “Hope Initiative,” what Police Chief Thomas Bashore describes as the first program in North Carolina that allows opioid addicts to walk into a police station and ask for help with their drug problem.
“It doesn’t matter if a person comes to the Police Department in possession of paraphernalia, or even drugs,” Bashore said. “If that person comes to seek treatment, they will not be arrested.”
Bashore described the program Thursday to state lawmakers, medical providers, community activists and fellow members of law enforcement in the auditorium of the state Legislative Building. His talk was part of a daylong Law Enforcement and Community Summit on Heroin in North Carolina hosted by the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide nonprofit agency dedicated to reducing the harms of drug use.
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The crux of the summit: a call for law enforcement and the greater community to think creatively and respond more compassionately when it comes to dealing with the rise of heroin and opioid prescription drug abuse. Heroin overdose deaths in the state increased 565 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition. At the same time, hepatitis C, spread primarily through the use of sharing needles to inject drugs, has tripled.
“We have to eliminate the stigma,” Bashore said, “and look at it the same way we view diabetes or cancer, and the need for treatment.”
So far, 17 residents of Nashville, a town of 5,600, have arrived at the Police Department looking for help with their addictions, Bashore said. The department calls a community volunteer, who accompanies the person seeking help to a medical facility to begin treatment and recovery.
Bashore said he helped to start the Hope Initiative last summer after reading about the Angel Program in Gloucester, Mass. That program was launched June 1, 2015, when the town’s police chief announced on Facebook, “Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment or drugs and asks for help will not be charged. Instead, we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery.”
Bashore said, “We make the same promise to individuals who come to us seeking help.”
Role of naloxone
The daylong summit featured law enforcement leaders from across the state who gathered to talk about their response to the growing problem. Most of the morning presentations focused on naloxone, an antidote for opiate drug overdoses.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed a law that allowed naloxone to be made available to the public and members of law enforcement. So far, said Scott Proescholdbell, a researcher with the state Department of Health and Human Services, 27,385 naloxone kits have been distributed throughout the state, the second-highest number in the country behind Chicago. Use of the antidote has resulted in 2,848 overdose reversals over the past three years.
“There have already been over 1,000 this year,” Proescholdbell said, noting that there also have been 19 deaths in the state caused by the use of synthetic opioids, primarily Fentanyl, in recent months.
Lt. William Penn with the Winston-Salem Police Department said officers in his department started carrying naloxone in September. Patrol officers have responded to overdose calls every month, Penn said, with a dozen lives saved after the officers administered naloxone to counteract the effects of an overdose.
Before Winston-Salem officers were equipped with naloxone, “we were arriving at the scene and watching people die,” Penn said.
“There are 12 souls still with us because of naloxone,” he said. “Please don’t underestimate the compassion of officers.”
Bashore said that before starting the Hope Initiative in February, the Nashville Police Department responded to more than 100 overdose calls during the first quarter of last year. The current average is 30 each month.
Of the 17 people who have come to his department seeking help, Bashore said:
▪ Three are in long-term treatment.
▪ Four are on a waiting list for long-term care.
▪ Eight are receiving outpatient care.
▪ Two have returned to using drugs.
“We were the first in the state to do this,” he said. “It is our hope that others will join in the fight and make our communities safer.”
Bill to expand access to naloxone gains favor
A state Senate judiciary committee on Thursday unanimously signed off on proposed legislation to make opioid overdose reversal drugs more accessible to the general public.
Senate Bill 734 is expected to be considered by the full Senate next week. If approved, it would go to the House.
The bill would authorize the state health director to prescribe naloxone hydrochloride through a statewide standing order, allowing pharmacists to dispense the drug to treat overdoses of heroin and prescription pain killers. The health director would be granted civil and criminal immunity in court from any actions related to the law.
“Opioid overdose … is really the public health crisis of our time,” Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, told the committee.
Williams said naloxone could cut fatal overdoses from heroin and painkillers in half. But he cautioned that without reliable treatment for opioid addicts and a decrease in prescriptions written by doctors, the problem would get worse, and that those saved once by naloxone are highly susceptible to another overdose.
“You’ve got to just not treat the symptom,” he said. “You have to treat the disease, and we think addiction is a disease.”
Responding to a question, Williams said naloxone doesn’t make users high, so it doesn’t have abuse potential.
Williams said the opioid epidemic crosses every geographic and demographic boundary. “There is no longer any prototype for what a drug overdose patient looks like,” he said.
Staff writer Patrick Gannon