ROCKINGHAM — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced a new website Tuesday that will compile the strategies that communities across the state are using to fight the opioid crisis with the goal of moving the conversation forward.
Addressing the crisis has been a major focus of Stein’s since taking office in January.
A 2016 report listed four North Carolina cities — Jacksonville, Wilmington, Hickory and Fayetteville — in the top 25 for opioid abuse. Wilmington was No. 1 in the nation.
He has held roundtable meetings in 20 North Carolina counties this year to hear people’s experiences with the drugs at the local level, including one in Richmond County last week.
“These meetings have taught me two things: first, there are hard-working people all across our state who are making a difference in their community,” Stein said in a press release. “And second, there are great programs in North Carolina that are making a difference in this crisis — and I want to make it easy to spread the word about them. I hope people will use this online resource to make a difference in their own community.”
The website has a link on the homepage where users are asked to specify what field they work in, whether they are first responders, health care professionals, law enforcement, elected officials or community leaders, a person in need of treatment resources or a volunteer. There are about 50 programs highlighted on the site with links, brief descriptions and contact info.
Stein’s Richmond County stop drew a dense crowd of law enforcement, medical, school system and social service officials to the Judicial Center. The most notable comment was from a recovering opioid addict, Mark Christopher, who came as a friend of Harold Pearson, a clinician with Samaritan Colony.
Christopher shared his story of running a plant in Aberdeen with a nice house, strong family — what he called the “American dream” — before it all came crashing down due his prescription drug addiction.
“Here’s how I got help…I was arrested,” Christopher said. “There were people there that were available for me through the court system in Moore County to get help.”
He got out on house arrest and was sent to Samaritan Colony, an inpatient drug treatment facility for men. Christopher said that what helped him could be applied on a broader scale: give drug addicts a high bond to keep them from getting back into their old ways but be willing to let them out only if they go get treatment.
Christopher also suggested a way to give convicted felons hope, something that he has struggled to regain since his arrest. He said the courts should give felons the chance to get a felony wiped from their record if they can stay clean, even if they have to stay clean for 20 years.
Chief District Court Judge Scott Brewer said he works with district attorneys and sheriffs to help someone they identify as needing treatment by making it a condition that they will only be given a bond if they complete treatment at Samaritan Colony.
“Locking people up for addiction is a waste of time, it’s a complete waste of time,” Brewer said.
The attendees identified a glaring issue specific to Richmond County: there are no inpatient drug treatment facilities for women or youth. For some in the room, this is a familiar, though frustrating, problem. For others, it was the first they had heard of it.
The Daily Journal reported Wednesday that Samaritan Colony is awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature on a petition to add 14 new beds to the state plan which will go toward the formation of an inpatient women’s treatment facility next to the men’s.
Social Services Director Robby Hall highlighted the newly formed Drug Endangerment Task Force as a local effort to address the opioid epidemic in Richmond County.
Wendy Jordan, principal of Rockingham Middle School, noted that the over-prescribing of opiates to adults and the elderly leads to the drugs falling into the hands of children and earlier dependence.
“Grandma’s got the pills and she’s giving them to the daughter and then the high school kid is taking them, too, because he’s got a headache and kids stay out of school and then they’ve got absenses and then they get (held back),” Jordan said. She suggested increasing the availability of mental health as a solution, as well as “positive parenting” programs which deal with these issues head-on in the hopes of preventing them.
Commissioner Don Bryant said what was obvious to him after the meeting was that there are too many pills being prescribed, and the only way to change that was to go to the top and regulate the suppliers.
“When we had trouble with tobacco, we taxed them and money came in to help farmers make money in other ways,” Bryant said. “(Drug companies) aren’t going to cut back unless they’re forced to.”
Earlier this month, commissioners in Bucombe County filed a public nuisance lawsuit against drug manufacturers, alledging the companies are engaged in “false, deceptive and unfair marketing and/or unlawful diversion of prescription opioids,” the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.
Director of Health and Human Services Tommy Jarrell said that each of the groups represented at the meeting had been addressing the issue individually, but the meeting was a chance to take the next step.
“It gives us an opportunity as a community to come together and address it,” Jarrell said.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]