Photo courtesy Lauri Rantala, flickr creative commons

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<p>As the fatal reach of illegal and prescription drugs increases in North Carolina, federal, state and local officials seek comment from the community.

By Thomas Goldsmith

At a recent town hall meeting in Raleigh, state officials rolled out hard numbers on the state’s epidemic of prescription and illegal drugs, drawing a clear picture of its impact on government and law enforcement.

“We’ve had a 565 percent increase in heroin deaths since 2010,” said Alan Dellapenna, head of the Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, of the state Division of Public Health.

New numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services show the number of deaths from heroin in North Carolina ticked up again last year to 364 people. Photo courtesy Lauri Rantala, flickr creative commons

In 2015, North Carolina saw 364 deaths from heroin, almost one a day. But far more, 738 people, suffered prescription opioid deaths, Dellapenna said.

After the opening statements and statistics from officials, stark accounts from community members made plain the searing personal impact of the flow of drugs. The speakers at the town hall, held September 22 at Pullen Community Center, were parents, faith leaders, health professionals, policemen, recovering users, counselors and others, many with harrowing stories and questions about how to proceed.

“My son overdosed in 2008,” said Raleigh resident Paul Cox. “We felt like we were clueless.”

Dean Cox, son of Paul and wife Terry Cox, died at age 19 from a heroin overdose, two years after surviving his first drug overdose.

“We didn’t know what to do; there was no team of doctors here for us. There was no followup, there was nothing!” Paul Cox said. “We took our eyes off of him and he died, 12 days after Christmas.”

The town hall coincided with President Barack Obama’s awareness week on the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic from September 18-24. Those who gathered heard updates from John Stuart Bruce, United States Attorney, Eastern District and Leslie Cooley, head of the drug unit in the U.S. Attorney’s office, along with state and local officials.

Alan Delapenna, head of the Injury & Violence Prevention Branch, Chronic Disease and Injury Section, Division of Public Health, shows attendees at a town hall numbers on the effects of drug addiction in North Carolina. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith.

“This is a complex epidemic,” said Alan Dellapenna, head of the injury and violence prevention branch, state Division of Public Health. “We’ve had 20 years of prescription pain medications, combined with an unprecedented availability of easy-to-find heroin and fentanyl.”

Officials said they wanted to gather comments and suggestions from the community, realizing that they will never arrest their way out of the problem. They were gratified at the turnout of at least 60 people, but finding solutions won’t be easy given the scope of the problem, they said.

Drugs spread through neighborhoods, overwhelm health care

“I know more about drugs than I ever wanted,” Paul Cox said. The Coxes said the specter and reality of addiction haunted their “nice North Raleigh neighborhood.”

Paul Cox, whose son died of a heroin overdose in 2008, speaks to a recent town hall meeting on drug use at Pullen Community Center.
Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“There were four addicts, one alcoholic, one kid went to prison and our son died,” Paul Cox said after the meeting.

Earlier in the week, there had been 77 people in the emergency department at WakeMed hospital who had been involuntarily committed, said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.

Often, drug dependency and addiction problems go hand in hand with mental health issues for these patients. (Earlier this year, WakeMed stopped taking new emergency room patients because about 100 people were waiting for behavioral health treatment.)

“Almost monthly we have those kinds of numbers waiting in the emergency room at WakeMed needing those services,” she said. “We are at a crisis point.”

Freeman has been meeting with a working group of Wake County government, medical and law enforcement leaders on dealing with people with mental health problems, who often also have substance abuse involvement.

“I say consistently we want to divert people from the criminal justice system, but we have to have a place to divert them to,” she said.

‘I’m having a problem’

North Carolina deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs reached 738 in 2015, Dellapenna said.

“There’s an erosion of the reluctance to use prescription drugs,” he said.

Some health professionals and patients spoke up for the right of people who need pain medication to obtain it without worrying about being suspected an addict and the associated fear of stigma.

In the case of people illegally using opioids, that fear of stigma keeps users from asking for help, said Meredith Stancill, who works in discharge planning.

“People have problems saying, ‘I’m having a problem,'” Stancill said.

Patients can fear having medication taken away from them that they need to fight pain, she said.

Other speakers brought up the state’s Controlled Substances Reporting System, which allows, but does not require doctors to report possible misuse of controlled substances by their patients.

Michael Dublin, pastor of the South Central church of Christ, tells attendees at a town hall meeting on drug abuse that members of the community should work together on the issue. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“The CSRS system is a great system for those that use it,” said Dunn Police Sgt. Jeffrey Williams. “We need some help with that. I know doctors don’t want legislators telling them what to do.”

Working on the drug beat for 18 years, Williams said, he has encountered horrific scenes, including those of users who want to try a drug right after the same substance killed another addict in their presence.

“They were a meth head and they wanted to try that heroin because it made that man overdose,” Williams said. “It’s not even their drug.”

The Rev. Michael Dublin, pastor at South Central church of Christ, called for the community to pull together to fight the menace of drugs.

“There is a richness if we don’t block people out because they don’t believe the way we do,” Dublin said.

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Learn More:

North Carolina has been cited as one of 11 states with the highest per capita rates of primary treatment admissions for heroin and prescription opioids for the purposes of a program run by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, the qualifying states have the most dramatic recent increases for heroin and opioids, SAMHSA said last month.

The level of addiction and abuse means that the states will receive as much as $11 million to give people addicted to prescription opioids more access to medication-assisted treatment.

Other states receiving help from the grants are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Rhode Island.

Source: SAMHSA

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...