Area residents and Wingate University students seeking information about opioid addiction heard from a dozen speakers Sunday evening at the Batte Center.
Local experts from the medical, legal and education fields joined a retired crime-lab scientist and a state lawmaker to explore the problem and suggest potential solutions. An addiction survivor and a mother who lost her son to an overdose gave the crowd at Wingate’s third installment of the Engaged Citizenship Series indisputable evidence of the urgency of tackling the issue.
Wesley Keziah said that he began using marijuana at age 13 and progressed to cocaine, crack and — after being prescribed a pain-killer for a back injury — heroin. In between stints in jail and a three-year prison sentence, he said he tried to escape the drug with the help of doctors, therapists and recovery programs, but that it was a relationship with God that ultimately helped set him free.
Stephanie Cox told the audience about the 2015 death of her 26-year-old son, Trenton Alexander Phillips, and the importance of preventing more like it.
“What I want you to remember is that these drugs and this addiction are real. This is an absolute emergency,” Cox said. “This is so hard to talk about, but I feel compelled to be loud, to scream and yell. As a community, we are at a crisis point.”
Statistics from the Union County Sheriff’s Office — 372 drug arrests last year and dramatic increases in heroin-related deaths and overdoses — and a word from District Attorney Trey Robison supported her claim.
“The run-of-the-mill drug possession and sales cases have always been there, and we still have those. But we also now have a whole other litany of crimes because addicts are trying to support their habits,” Robison explained. He said drugs are often at the heart of violent crime, theft, prostitution and human trafficking as well as domestic violence.
“In addition to stealing, robbing and killing, we have driving while impaired cases that don’t involve alcohol, but instead involve drugs,” he said.
A 20-year law enforcement veteran, Lt. Brian Huncke with the Union County Sheriff’s Office said he had made arrests in crack houses and tracked cartel members to Mexico, where much of the heroin, one of many opium-derived drugs (opiates or opioids), comes from. But he told the crowd that cartel members are not his main concern.
“Our problem is the pills in your medicine cabinet,” Huncke said. “That’s where our main problem is right now.”
Dr. Geoff Mospan with the Wingate University School of Pharmacy addressed the relationship between prescribing rates and opioid deaths.
According to a report from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Service, in 2016, more than 675 million opioid tablets were dispensed to Tar Heel residents, a 52 percent increase over a five-year period. That breaks down to more than 65 pills for every man, woman and child in the state.
In addition to reducing the amount of opioids that are prescribed, Mospan suggested a number of ways to battle the problem, including increased use of the state’s controlled-substance reporting system; increased access to suboxone, a drug used in the treatment of opioid use disorder, and naloxone, an overdose reversal drug; and the establishment of opioid hotlines so that users can get immediate help.
Also part of the solutions panel at the forum, Mospan’s colleague at the School of Pharmacy, Dr. Chris Gillette said a harm-reduction program now in the works at the Union County Health Department could eventually give those caught in the cycle of abuse clean syringes, information on how to use naloxone, and most importantly, an avenue to begin their escape.
He said studies show that users involved in harm-reduction programs are five times more likely to seek treatment, and that a harm-reduction program in Huntington, West Virginia, resulted in a 25-percent reduction in overdose deaths.
The forum audience also heard from Cristy Gupton, representing the nonprofit Shatterproof and her business, Custom Benefits Solutions. Gupton emphasized the need to reduce both the supply and demand for opioids. A video clip she supplied urged anyone facing surgery to discuss post-operative protocol with healthcare providers before the procedure asking that other pain medications be used in place of opioids. She said employers can set up health plans that incentivize such behaviors and help their employees deal with pain without risking addiction.
Retired crime-lab scientist Ann Hamlin, who provided a backdrop for the opioid discussion by giving a brief history of illicit drug-use in North Carolina, also introduced DisposeRx, an in-home drug disposal system which allows people to safely discard medications to ensure that they don’t wind up in the landfill or on the streets.
Also at the forum, Representative Craig Horn, from District 68 of the N.C. House, addressed ways that lawmakers are responding to the epidemic that in 2016 alone robbed the nation of more lives than did the Vietnam War. He cited the STOP (Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention) Act passed by the General Assembly last June, which, among other provisions, limits first-time prescriptions of targeted controlled substances for acute pain to five days and those for post-surgical pain to seven days and requires greater use of the controlled-substance reporting system. He also said the Legislature has earmarked $10 million in state funding and $20 million from the federal government to help tackle North Carolina’s opioid problem.
Both Horn and Sheriff Eddie Cathey, whose office partnered with Wingate University and with the Union County Public Schools to offer Sunday’s event, said it will take more than new regulations and law enforcement to combat the epidemic.
“I know we cannot arrest our way out of it. The laws are here to support us, but the community has got to help us with this problem,” Cathey said. “When you see every week overdoses, people with needles in their arms, it is staggering. But you don’t realize it until it affects you. If we can get the word out, we can slow it down.”
Jarrod McCraw, safety and security director with the Union County Public Schools, said getting the word out has been the goal of informational sessions being held in area high schools. He said schools can educate, but that they can’t take the place of good parenting.
“We get so busy on our phones and Facebook or our social media of choice that we forget to raise our children,” he said, reminding the crowd of the importance of family dinners and listening.
McCraw said area residents who missed Sunday’s event will have a chance to attend a similar presentation at Forest Hills High on April 10 or at Porter Ridge High on May 17. Both meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.
Sunday’s Engaged Citizenship Series event was moderated by Jeff Atkinson, assistant vice president at Wingate’s Ballantyne campus, and by Tony Underwood, public information officer for the Union County Sheriff’s Office. WU President Rhett Brown opened the event with words of welcome and an announcement that the University plans to present at least two Engaged Citizenship events each year to encourage local residents to gather face to face to discuss important issues.