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How Substance Abuse Issues Have Changed In WNC

Lilly Knoepp
“He told me he was tired of putting young people in body bags," says Senator Jim Davis.";

Prescription opioid abuse has been in the national spotlight this summer as new data about the numbers of prescriptions per county has been released. North Carolina is also part of national lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma for their role in the crisis. 

In Western North Carolina, the policies around opioids and substance abuse issues are shifting as local politicians and experts look for a solution to the epidemic.

State Senator Jim Davis will wrap up 10 years in office when his term ends next year. The Republican won’t seek re-election for his seat that represents the westernmost portion of North Carolina. During his decade in the senate, Davis says he’s evolved on the issue of addiction:

“Basically I was pretty ignorant about the problem up until I was approached by the then Chief of Police in Waynesville Bill Hollingshead,” says Davis. “He told me he was tired of putting young people in body bags.”

Now one of the National Conference of State Legislatures Opioid Policy Fellows, Davis says one substance abuse policy he has changed his mind on sticks out:  

“Needle exchange programs. I always used to view them as rewarding bad behavior,” says Davis.  

He explains that at the NCSL meetings he learned about how other states are dealing with their drug issues. He plans to introduce a commission structure he saw in Colorado to help deal with the opioid issue after he retires.

This summer Davis helped pass the Opioid Epidemic Response Act, which allows state funding for needle exchanges and legalized fentanyl drug testing strips.

According to NC DHHS there are needle exchange programs in Henderson, Buncombe, Transylvania, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties as well as on the Qualla Boundary.

Dr. Al Kopak is a professor of criminology at Western Carolina University.  He’s studying the number of inmates suffering from substance abuse in jails in the western counties. He started in Haywood County in 2015. 

“That actually sensitized us to the high numbers of opioid disorder and actually methamphetamine is worse,” says Kopak.  

Kopak found that 72 percent of detainees in the Haywood County Jail showed signs consistent with a severe substance use disorder.  He’s now expanded the study to jails in Jackson County, where the preliminary results from June show 81 percent of the detainees are addicted.  These numbers include opioids, alcohol and other substances.

“I guess the best way to describe the balance is that all substance abuse is concerning,” says Kopak.  

Kopak plans to expand the study across Western North Carolina, with the hope it helps law enforcement understand how to help those suffering from substance abuse. 

Both Davis and Kopak will be speaking at Western Carolina University’s Opioid and Addiction Town Hall on October 3rd.

Western Carolina University is a business sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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