U.S. Marine veteran and Nash County native Joey Pittman will celebrate two milestones this month: his 31st birthday and one year of freedom from an addiction to opioid drugs that caused him to run through thousands of dollars, including a $20,000 military benefit when he left the Corps in 2013.
Pittman beat the expensive and potentially deadly drug habit with help from an unlikely source: his local police department.
Last February, the Nashville Police Department and its chief, Thomas Bashore, began the HOPE Initiative, a program that allows people to walk through the department’s doors and seek help for their opioid prescription drug, heroin and cocaine addictions without fear of going to jail.
Since mid-January, 100 people have sought the police department’s help. Some lived in the area, but Bashore said the majority came from all over the state to this town of 5,500 a half-hour east of Raleigh. Of that number, 50 have received help at long-term treatment centers, 32 are enrolled in substance abuse intensive outpatients centers and 18 are awaiting placement in treatment programs, Bashore reported.
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Pittman was the first, on Feb. 17, 2016.
“I was spending like $300 a day on Percocet. I was doing about 10 or 12 of them a day,” he said. He started buying heroin off the street in late 2013 when he realized it was cheaper.
“I realized I was dependent on it,” he said. “I realized I couldn’t go without it.”
Our whole purpose is to get ahead of the problem. I think we’re doing it. I think everyone else is going to be playing catch-up.
Thomas Bashore, Police chief, Nashville Police Department
The HOPE Initiative is part of a rethinking of law enforcement’s role in responding to a growing and deadly opioid epidemic nationwide. In North Carolina, 1,102 people died of accidental overdoses of heroin and opioid medications in 2015, up from less than 100 in 1999. Fatal heroin overdoses in the state more than quadrupled in five years to 369 in 2015, the last year for which data is available. State health officials say if current trends continue, accidental overdoses from opioid drugs will surpass motor vehicle fatalities as the state’s leading cause of death.
Nashville Chief Bashore has discussed the HOPE Initiative with police commanders across the state, both in person and at conferences, but so far no other department has adopted it.
“Other police departments have come here to talk with me about it, and there have been plenty of phone calls,” he said.
“My guess is the other police departments are looking at what we’re doing and are seeing if it’s going to be successful or a flash in the pan. Our whole purpose is to get ahead of the problem. I think we’re doing it. I think everyone else is going to be playing catch-up.”
How it works
Cary Police Chief Tony Godwin, whose department investigated three fatal heroin overdoses in late November and one this month, said he’s “very familiar” with the HOPE Initiative.
“It certainly seems to have had an impact in their community,” said Godwin, who added that he has met with Bashore on several occasions. He said the HOPE Initiative is among the several programs under consideration by police commanders and town leaders who are reviewing “options and strategies” for dealing with the issue, but that it was still to early to say what the city would do.
Bashore modeled the HOPE Initiative after the “Angel” program in Gloucester, Mass., which was started in 2015 after accidental drug overdoses became a leading cause of death in that state. Under the Angel program, when addicts ask the Gloucester Police Department for help, an officer takes them to a hospital where they are paired with a volunteer “angel” who guides them through a process with the goal of treatment and recovery.
When addicts arrive at the Nashville police station for help, a volunteer accompanies them to the emergency department of Nash UNC Health Care in Rocky Mount, for treatment and assessment that typically lasts several hours to a day. They are then admitted to Coastal Plain Hospital, the in-patient psychiatric hospital on the Nash UNC Health Care campus. One of the first people they meet at the hospital is Amanda Flory, a transitional care social worker.
Flory follows each patient while he or she is at the hospital and after release from a detoxification process that could take five to seven days. Each participant undergoes a behavioral assessment by medical specialists who determine if there might be other underlying issues such as mental illness, in addition to a substance use disorder.
After the detox period ends, patients are referred to a long-term residential treatment program that can last 30 days to two years, or they can participate in intensive out-patient programs that require them to visit a specific clinic at least three times a week for group sessions. The out-patient services also offer one-on-one therapy.
Flory said the long-term treatment centers are preferred.
One thing I have been hearing is how refreshing it is to have someone in a law enforcement role trying to make a difference in this way.
Amanda Flory, a transitional care social worker, Coastal Plain Hospital in Nash County
“We have better success with individuals who go into the residential treatment centers,” she said. “They vary. Some are very clinical. Some are faith-based. Some are fused to go together. The key is finding out what the person wants, what they will be most comfortable with, and to give them power and choice and respect in the process.”
More than 1,745 people were admitted to the psychiatric hospital in 2016, Flory said. Of that number, 437, including the 100 who came through the HOPE Initiative, were diagnosed with opioid disorders.
“That’s just with the opioid diagnosis,” she said. “That does not include alcohol disorders, cocaine disorders, Xanax, Valium and methamphetamines. Then there’s mental illness and dual substance abuse disorders.”
Funding for the treatment comes from the state’s Medicaid program and is then channeled to managed care organizations that help pay the medical expenses for the uninsured. Flory said it’s difficult to put an estimate on the Hope Initiative’s treatment costs, due to the complexity of how the program works and added expenses that are incurred if a patient has to be treated for an underlying problem along with addiction.
“One thing I have been hearing is how refreshing it is to have someone in a law enforcement role trying to make a difference in this way,” Flory said. “For many of them their experience with law enforcement has not been positive, and this has not been anything but positive.”
Began with surgery
Pittman’s entry into the harrowing world of addiction started in 2011 when he tore his ACL during military training exercises at Camp Lejeune. During the eight-month recovery period after surgery he was prescribed opioid drugs for pain; a second surgery prolonged his use of painkillers. After he was discharged in 2012, Pittman said he continued taking the painkillers “here and there.”
If I had 50 bags (of heroin) I would try to stretch it out. It wouldn’t last a week, maybe like three or four days.
Joey Pittman, former addict
Pittman moved that year with his wife to Knightdale, where he eventually ended up hooked on pills. Pittman started using heroin and his addiction took off. The couple moved to Cary months later. He tried to get clean by entering rehab at the Holly Hill and South Light hospitals in Raleigh, but heroin was winning. His marriage ended.
“Heroin,” Pittman said. “Somebody said, ‘You can get heroin for cheaper and it lasts longer.’ Heroin came and all my money went to that.”
Pittman starting driving to Rocky Mount to buy heroin because it was cheaper. Instead of crushing and snorting Percocet pills that cost $30 each, he was spending $300 for 50 bags of heroin.
“If I had 50 bags I would try to stretch it out,” he said. “It wouldn’t last a week, maybe like three or four days. That was my daily routine. I moved to Rocky Mount. That’s when it really went downhill. I actually ended up stealing. It got so bad I would steal stuff.”
In 2014, police charged Pittman with one misdemeanor count each for larceny and possession of drug paraphernalia and felony possession of heroin. The charges were reduced, and an Edgecombe County District Court judge sentenced him to probation.
“The whole time I was on probation I was messing around, trying to scheme for drugs,” he said.
One of Pittman’s aunts told him about the HOPE Initiative.
“She said, ‘You can go to the police for help and they won’t arrest you,’ ” he said. “Was I skeptical? Absolutely. I was still on probation. Who in their right mind would go to the police department and tell them, ‘I got a problem,’ especially after being in trouble for drugs before? Naw, I didn’t want to be arrested.”
But Pittman was tired of drugs. He was tired of waking up sick when he didn’t have money for heroin. He was 30 years old and tired of not having a home, a car, furniture – the things that would indicate he was living a normal life.
He talked with Bashore, who contacted a volunteer who drove him to Nash UNC Health Care, where he stayed for a week flushing the drugs out of his body. Pittman spent a little more than a month at a long-term treatment center in Palm Beach County, Fla., where he moved into a halfway house in April. By late July, when it was time for him to leave, the maintenance manager at the house offered him a job.
“I’m kind of responsible for the people there,” he said. “I’m kind of like a baby-sitter for four or five people.”
Pittman understands the skepticism about the idea of addicts who might be high, perhaps carrying drugs and paraphernalia, walking into a police station where the chief doesn’t arrest them, but instead leads them through the process of beating their habit. But his own experience made him a believer.
“I still have Chief Bashore’s number. He calls me to see how I’m doing,” Pittman said. “If I had tried doing it on my own I don’t think I would be in Florida and doing well here on my own. I don’t think I would have made it. I would probably be in Rocky Mount doing the exact same thing.”
Who is receiving help?
Police Chief Thomas Bashore says that since mid-January, 100 people have sought the police department’s help. 50 have received help at long-term treatment centers, 32 are enrolled in substance abuse intensive outpatients centers and 18 are awaiting placement in treatment programs.