Stein says effort to turn the tide won't be easy
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said Monday that there is no “silver bullet” for solving opioid addiction, but communities can make a difference in addressing the issue through a comprehensive approach of prevention, treatment and enforcement.
Stein was the guest at a roundtable discussion led by District Attorney Scott Thomas and Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck on efforts to reduce opioid addiction Monday in Morehead City.
Eastern North Carolina is not alone in dealing with the issue, Stein said.
“The common thread is that communities across the state are struggling with this opioid crisis,” Stein said. “Too many families have been torn apart; too many lives have been lost.”
Stein opened with the story of a young man who had knee surgery at 12 years old. He experimented with the pain medications he received, was hooked on heroin at age 15 and homeless by age 18.
That same young man also put himself through detox, went through treatment, and is now clean and studying to be a social worker to help others so they don’t go through the same thing.
“We can make a difference in this crisis; we can turn the tide but it is not going to be easy. We got to this point over a 10- or 15-year period. It’s not going to change overnight,” Stein said.
To make a change, Stein said there needs to be a comprehensive effort from a prevention, treatment and enforcement standpoint.
Stein said the STOP (Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention) Act now before the General Assembly addresses two of those.
The first part is to reduce the number of individuals who become addicted through responsible practices at the “front end,” such as efforts to reduce doctor shopping and people fraudulently obtaining prescription medications.
The second part is the allocation of $20 million over two years for community-based treatment and recovery programs across the state.
There is also the Synthetic Opioid Control Act intended to update North Carolina’s laws regarding the illegal sale of chemically created drugs.
Buck said Stein’s visit to the county was an opportunity to bring together various stakeholders, including law enforcement, medical professionals and treatment providers, to talk about an issue that continues to be a big one in Carteret County and across the state.
He said it is a complex one as they see a crisis of addiction coming from two pathways: individuals who have never abused drugs recreationally but became addicted after obtaining prescription opioids, and repeat offenders who have abused prescription and other illegal drugs.
Buck said one problem they are seeing more recently is a rise in heroin use as those addicted to opioids find heroin as a cheaper alternative. About 80 percent of heroin users have reported being addicted to opioids first.
Buck noted that enforcement alone can’t solve the problem, but he also noted that there are times when getting help for someone with an addiction can mean a criminal charge before that happens.
“Sometimes the only way to get people the help they need is through law enforcement, and that is unfortunate,” Buck said.
Thomas said the district attorney’s office works with law enforcement to aggressively prosecute repeat offenders, the drug dealers on the street, but he said what people don’t always see after an arrest are the efforts to help first-time offenders.
He said there are prosecution programs where a first-time offender can plead guilty and get supervised probation and agree to complete a certain plan for treatment. After meeting treatment requirements, it’s possible to have that charge dismissed.
“Our goal with first-time offenders is that it is their first and last offense,” said Thomas, whose district includes Craven and Pamlico counties as well.
But there are issues that participants noted within the community, often from a lack of resources.
Capt. Dennis Barber with the Carteret County Sheriff’s Office, who has been a been an advocate for mental health and substance abuse treatment efforts, said there is confusion over where people should go to get help, who the providers are.
At the education level, a participant noted that the long-time DARE program typically offered to fifth-graders, doesn’t address the opioid issues.
Buck said DARE is a program that he has wanted to see expanded, but one issue is the lack of funding. For instance, funding was cut for school resource officers, who do a lot of the education programs in schools.