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Tackling the Opioid Crisis and its Ripple Effects

The opioid crisis is taking an acute toll and nowhere is immune, including here in North Carolina.  North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein says four people die every day in North Carolina from an opioid overdose.  With that in mind, a mixture of lawmakers, law enforcement, first responders, health professionals and advocates of Buncombe County were on hand to hear from Stein recently.  He’s made tackling the issue one of his top priorities since taking office, spearheading a bipartisan bill called the STOP Act.

“The STOP Act’s primary goal is to reduce the number of people who get addicted.  So we’re trying to prevent new addictions.  But there are literally tens of thousands of North Carolinians with substance abuse disorder where prescription pain killers are the main source of the problem.  We have got to do something to help those folks get healthy.”

The bill includes a number of measures, including limits on prescriptions of highly addictive painkillers, which can be dangerous themselves and can lead to more serious drug use.  It passed unanimously in the House and is now working its way through the Senate.  Stein is careful to refer to addicts as suffering from a disorder.  He wants a shift in emphasis towards treatment.

“Because what law enforcement tells me is that we will not arrest our way out of this problem.  You cannot just arrest somebody who is a heroin addict, put them in jail for 9 months, have that time served, and have them come out and expect them not to go back on the drug.  There has to be a medical intervention so that that person stops the illegal behavior.”

Even if the bill passes, Stein says it’s just a start.  He mentioned a proposal to spend $20 million dollars over two years for community treatment facilities that wasn’t included in the Senate budget.

“It is insufficient.  It will not solve the problem.  But what we have to do is move forward.  We have to advance.  That doesn’t mean we’re going to solve this problem in 2017.  But in 2017 we can take concrete steps to help move forward and make progress.”

Meanwhile ripple effects from the opioid epidemic are spreading.  In addition to those dying of overdoses, new cases of hepatitis B and C are rising in part due to the sharing of needles for drugs.  That’s a problem one man at the meeting knew well. Michael Harney is a prevention educator at the Western North Carolina Aids Project and was the cofounder of the Needle Exchange Program of Asheville

“There was a little bit of work in the 1991, 92 time period.  But we were the first openly active needle exchange program in the state of North Carolina.” 

Those exchanges were only legalized last year.  Providing clean needles to drug users comes with its share of controversy, but it may be a way to slow the spread of blood borne disease, and the demand is certainly there.  Harney says they can’t even keep up.

“We do run out of supplies monthly.  We have for the last year and a half or so, with the demand that seems to be ever-increasing.  We have gone through about 60,000 needles a month on average, and running out after providing that many shows that there’s an increased need, a further demand that’s not being met.”

Harney says pharmacies can sell needles, but they often won’t do so without a prescription, which means more strain on groups like his, the only needle exchange program in this part of the state.

“So sometimes people can’t access needles and that’s why they’re coming from Andrews and Murphy and up in Yancey County and down in, you know, from Charlotte and coming from McDowell County.”

And like the Attorney General, Harney says a big part of solving the problem is a change in focus from incarceration to treatment, and simply changing the way we think about drug users.

“They’re human beings and they come in with such grace and gratitude to us.  They thank us wholeheartedly.  ‘Thank you so much for being here.  If you weren’t here I don’t know what I would do.  I might have gotten HIV or Hepatitis C or another blood-borne infection.  Thank you all so much!’”

‘Thank you so much’ is something those in the room hope to be able to say to lawmakers if they pass bills like the STOP Act, first steps in battling what’s becoming a growing, complex and ever-challenging problem, touching the lives of more and more North Carolinians.  

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