Four people die every day in North Carolina from an opioid overdose, state Attorney General Josh Stein told crowds gathered for a discussion about the opioid crisis June 6 at the Buncombe County Administrative Offices at 200 College St. Opioids, he said, are now the leading cause of death in the state. In 2016, Buncombe County had one of the highest densities of pills per capita in the state, with 17 million painkiller pills prescribed and 58 drug-related deaths. So far this year, Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services has responded to 1,270 overdose calls.
This is the scope of the opioid crisis in Western North Carolina, as representatives from medical groups, law enforcement officers, and city and county government officials explained to Stein. The conference, hosted by the Buncombe County Safety Net Coalition, provided area groups with an opportunity to discuss the opioid crisis here in Buncombe County and hear how other North Carolina counties were facing the issue.
Across the state, North Carolinians have an obligation to care for and help those struggling with addiction, Stein said.
“This crisis has really been whip-fast; it is a social problem that has happened at a speed which most of them don’t occur,” he said, citing statewide achievements such as standards for law enforcement and the funding and training of law enforcement to carry medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. “We’re doing productive things. It’s just that this crisis is growing faster than policymakers are responding. And so we’re having to step up our game as a result.”
A successful strategy hinges on prevention, treatment and enforcement, Stein told the crowd. The issue is “immense and multifaceted,” and will require collaborative solutions involving law enforcement, medical personnel and policymakers.
But being vigilant has a cost, and if the state can’t “arrest its way out of the problem,” alternative solutions need to be in place.
A bipartisan bill to reduce the number of people addicted to opioids is currently in the state Senate, but a lack of funding would make the legislation insufficient to provide adequate resources, Stein said. Additionally, the threat of national cuts to Medicaid, which has a provision for behavioral health, would limit the availability of treatment services to recovering opioid users, he said.
If the bill, known as the STOP Act, passes, it would require the use of a controlled substance reporting database and would set a limit on the number of days that initial prescriptions for acute pain would be written for, in the hopes of limiting the number of excess pills in medicine cabinets, Stein said.
The stories of people touched by the crisis follow him across the state, Stein told the crowd. A man who suffered a back injury quickly became addicted to prescription painkillers and lost his job and his family. A teenager went from raiding her parents’ medicine cabinet to stealing $80,000 from her family in a single year to fuel her addiction. A wrestler from Cary High School injured his shoulder and quickly went from painkillers to heroin and ultimately died from an overdose.
“This is a Democratic issue and this is a Republican issue,” Stein said. “Opioid addiction affects old people and new people, urban people and rural folks, it affects you no matter what your background is or where you were born.”
Stein said he was encouraged to hear all the ways Buncombe County was “confronting the realistic and hard parts” of opioid use but knows there is still much to be done to halt the spread of the crisis.
“We have got to do something to see those people get healthy and cease those addictions so that they can live happy, productive lives just like the rest of us,” Stein said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to solve this problem in 2017. But in 2017 we can take concrete steps to help move forward and make progress.”