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By Taylor Knopf

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that North Carolina received a $31 million federal grant to combat the opioid epidemic across the state.

The grant will be spread over two years and 80 percent of the money will directly fund treatment and recovery services, starting immediately. Funds are already being made available to treatment centers through the state’s seven behavioral health management agencies.

State officials have been looking for ways to combat the increasing number of overdose deaths in North Carolina, which have climbed from 150 deaths in 1999 to 1,110 in 2015. A total of 11,072 North Carolinians died from opioid overdose during that time.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and Attorney General Josh Stein joined Cooper for the grant announcement at SouthLight Healthcare, an addiction treatment center in Raleigh.

Cohen estimates that 3,000 additional North Carolinians with substance abuse issues will receive treatment with the grant, which comes from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration made available under the 21st Century Cures Act passed in 2016.

The remaining 20 percent of the grant money will be used for prevention and education activities, the purchase of 6,500 additional kits containing naloxone (an overdose reversal drug), and to support rapid response teams, Cohen said.

“I want us all to look at this grant not as a single solution but rather part of an ongoing effort to curb epidemic levels of opioid addiction and overdose,” Cooper said to the recovery advocates and press gathered for the announcement.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “We have to make sure that we invest in treatment to make sure we get this problem at its source.”

Cooper said that state lawmakers still need to put funds toward the opioid problem and scolded the leaders of the state Senate.

“Unfortunately, the Republicans leadership at the General Assembly turned the opioid epidemic crisis the other night into a political football,” he said. “They provided a $1.9 million pilot program that was paid for by cutting education spending in Democratic districts.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between education funding and battling the opioid epidemic,” he said. “We can and we should do both.”

How much will the state give?

It’s still unclear how much state money will end up in the budget to combat this problem.

The governor’s proposed budget included $14 million to address the opioid crisis.

Attorney General Josh Stein talks with advocates and others who came to SouthLight Healthcare for the announcement of a $31 million grant to treat opioid addiction across North Carolina. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Senate lawmakers added almost $2 million for a pilot project minutes before they passed their budget last week, in addition to $250,000 in annual funds for a medication-assisted treatment pilot already written into the budget. Senators also added a mandate to examine the role of opioids by the state’s Prescription Drug Abuse Advisory Committee and ordered the committee to create a statewide strategic plan for combatting drug use.

The senate also wrote into the budget that 86 percent of funds allocated to treatment from the state’s three Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Centers be used for opioid treatment and allocated $100,000 for naloxone over the budget biennium.

Now the House is working on its version of the budget. House appropriations chair Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) has pledged to include $20 million in the budget to fund the recovery portion of the STOP Act.

Cooper criticized the Senate’s plan, saying its pilot program targets cities with Republican senators.

“Now, opioid crisis does not pick Democrats or Republicans as victims,” Cooper said. “Our solutions should not be that way either. Our solutions should fix this problem for every single citizen in North Carolina. It’s important for us to make sure we approach this problem in a bipartisan way.”

The governor noted that he accepted an appointment from the president to a federal opioid crisis task force, which will be chaired by Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

The people affected

North Carolina’s attorney general said he’s spent the past four months traveling the state to learn about the opioid problem and listen to people’s stories.

Stein told one story of a man who injured his back at work, was prescribed opioids, and ultimately lost his family and job. He told another of a daughter who experimented with pills on the weekend, graduated to using heroin, and eventually stole $80,000 from her parents to support her habit.

“It has taken the whole country about 20 years to get to the point of crisis,” Stein said. “We will not get out of it overnight. I’m convinced that if we come together and work hard, we can turn the tide and save lives.”

Aaron Gable got into trouble with drugs early in his life and was homeless by the time he was 18. He told the group about how he managed to turn his life around while in treatment. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Raleigh resident Aaron Gable, 38, is one of those saved lives. He told the governor and the group gathered at the recovery treatment center the story of how he got his life back.

Gable started drinking at age 15, quickly turned to drugs and was homeless by age 18. He said he started drinking and using drugs just for fun.

“I always felt like I was off as a child. I was never satisfied with my surroundings. I was always unhappy,” he said. “Then I found drugs and alcohol, and I felt like a light got turned on … ‘this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.’”

Gable landed in jail looking at a potential 40-year prison sentence and began thinking he needed to change his life. He went to prison for a time but continued getting high. It only took two days after he was released and off probation to starting using heroin again.

“I just got to a point where my family was pretty much gone. My wife was gone. I had nothing left,” Gable said. “I finally gave in to defeat and asked for help.”

At age 31, he got sober for one year and then needed surgery. He was given pain medication and slipped back into using.

“I was miserable. I wanted to die and was trying to kill myself,” Gable said. “You have to be miserable enough to make a change.”

He got into a recovery community and has been sober for five years. Last year he had another surgery and, with the help of friends, managed to take his medication without sliding back into addiction.

Gable frequently visits prisons, detox centers and 12-step recovery programs to share his story.

“Eleven years ago, a judge in Ohio told me I was a danger to the community at large,” Gable said. “I absolutely was… Today I stand before you a completely different man.”

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...