Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services responded to some 520 overdose and poisoning calls in the first six months of 2017, according to county data.
The county Board of Commissioners heard those figures during an update on county efforts to combat pain pill addiction during its meeting Tuesday. Preceding that presentation, members of an advocacy group outlined reasons why commissioners should approve a resolution in support of medicinal marijuana.
Yes NC Cannabis, a pro-medicinal marijuana organization, had eight people urge commissioners to approve a resolution that would support approval of medicinal marijuana by the N.C. General Assembly. That legislation is currently stalled in committee and unlikely to advance during the current legislative session.
“We urge you to review the facts of this resolution and put on the agenda for a vote. … Broader legalization will help people with pain find relief and mitigate the opioid epidemic. There is a serious opioid epidemic in North Carolina,” said Todd Stimson.
Amanda Krauss said our culture is shifting its attitude toward marijuana and recognizing it as a viable alternative to opioid-based pills. “Many people are afraid of opioids and scared of taking them. Some of our citizens are suffering, and we need to step up and support them,” she said.
Norman Ray told commissioners how marijuana has helped some of his veteran co-workers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and opioid addiction. “Medical cannabis is not a fringe thing. It’s something that can absolutely help folks. … Cannabis is somewhat effective against opioid addiction,” he said.
Commissioners did not respond to the public comments, as is normal during the open public comment period. For Yes NC Cannabis’ resolution to appear on an upcoming agenda, the commission chair can add it, or a group of three commissioners can request it be scheduled for a future meeting.
Earlier this year, Xpress had an in-depth look at local and state attitudes toward medicinal marijuana titled “Blunt Talk: Medical marijuana takes root.”
The pill problem
On the heels of the pro-cannabis comments, commissioners received an update on opioid overdoses and the county’s public awareness campaign. Statistics from Buncombe County EMS state there have been about 520 responses related to overdoses and poisonings through the first half of the year. By comparison, Buncombe EMS responded to about 700 last year and just over 500 in 2015.
Health and Human Services Director Jim Holland told Xpress, via email: “The Overdose/Poisoning [code] is used for drug overdoses as well as accidental medication errors, household chemical exposures and other similar complaints. There is no catch all for screening for overdoses unfortunately.”
In regard to how many of those overdoses resulted in fatalities, Holland says that information is not currently available. “The final determination of cause of any death is made by the attending physician or the medical examiner. That information may not be available until several months later because of toxicology reports and final laboratory testing,” he said.
“We are trying to create a movement across the county where we can understand implications of this public health crisis,” said Lisa Eby, the county’s health and human services communications director. “We are encouraging the public to talk to your children. Parents that talk about the risks of opioids are 50 percent less likely to use and get addicted. The community also needs to understand, never, ever share your medication. Fifty percent of people who get addicted get pills from a family member.”
Eby also noted the department is working with the medical community in hopes of having opioid pills have a “Caution: highly addictive” label and is planning faith-based and school-oriented forums to talk about opioid addiction.
Holland also reported about work on a facility that will help pregnant woman and those who recently gave birth who are dealing with opioid addiction. The 14-bedroom program, named Abba House, will be run by Western Carolina Rescue Ministries and is slated to open Sept. 1, according to Holland.
Holland also played two public service announcements the county created. “There was pretty close to not a dry eye in the room. … It struck at the heart of, I believe, every commissioner up here. It’s a tough message but it was delivered very well,” said Commissioner Joe Belcher.
Commissioner Ellen Frost then noted a friend recently received an 18-day supply of opioid-based pills from the hospital. “What can we do other than education to control this? Because clearly Mission is not consistent with what they do,” she said, referring to what she believes are irregular prescribing practices of pain pills.
“I’ve raised the issue with Mission Health. We have to continue to educate, educate, educate,” said Holland.
Commission Chair Brownie Newman raised concerns there isn’t an effective way to track the amount of pain pills being prescribed in the county. “If we don’t have that information and can’t see the trend we are losing. We’ve got to be able to see those numbers going down,” he said.
Holland noted the state’s opioid pill tracking system is down for maintenance, largely due to concerns about accuracy.
Commissioners took no official action but asked to receive more reports on the issue in the coming months.
Earlier this year, Xpress had an in-depth look at the opioid epidemic titled “Cure for pain: Preventing opioid-related deaths.”