ROCKINGHAM – North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein visited Richmond County on Thursday, November 16, to facilitate discussion addressing the proliferation of opioid-related issues in the area.
A wide array of representatives and interested parties from a multitude of stakeholder agencies joined Stein at the Richmond County Judicial Center for the 3 p.m. event.
Stein, who has now completed 19 such “roundtables” across the state since taking office in January, subsequently asked for their opinions and insights as to how the widespread usage – if not abuse – of pain-reducing medications has affected Richmond County and surrounding communities..
The session was orchestrated in a straightforward and dignified manner, but allowed for open and frank comments and discussion between and among the various attendees.
Commencing with Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons welcoming the attorney general and other dignitaries, the event proceeded to allow for direct input from individuals associated with law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, judges, the school system, healthcare providers (both the public and private sectors), social services, private treatment and recovery entities, and government officials at the city, county, and state levels.
Past mayor of Rockingham and former state senator Gene McLaurin helped to introduce the attorney general, noting the heightened degree of energy and proactive efforts that Stein had demonstrated while they were colleagues in the state senate.
Also assisting with introductory remarks was Tom McInnis, the current state senator and a primary sponsor of the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act in the NC General Assembly. He alerted attendees to the far-reaching effects of opioids, noting how the addictive power of “painkillers” was such that most all of us are affected, either directly or otherwise, by these medications.
“You, a member of your family, or someone you know have probably been affected by opioids,” said McInnis. “Employers are even having a difficult time finding workers who can pass the drug test, and this situation results in delays of construction projects and a shortage of workers in general.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the two-hour interaction was the “testimony” of recovering addict Mark Christopher. Having “lost everything” to the demon of opioid addiction, Christopher related his story and how it was ultimately his arrest and the subsequent admonition from the arresting officer regarding what he was doing to his family that finally convinced him of the need for assistance.
“I had it all – the American dream,” said Christopher. “And lost it all to painkillers.”
With the firm but fair procedures through which he was led by authorities, Christopher eventually found himself under the treatment and recovery auspices of the Samaritan Colony, for whom he now works as a counselor.
At all levels, the gist of the testimonies and comments was that treatment would seem preferable to incarceration. Advising officials to opt for treatment over jail, Christopher indicated that it was that “hard choice” that forced him to seriously pursue treatment and adopt the recovery mindset.
Such an approach was supported by officials in power. District Attorney Reese Saunders specifically reiterated that treatment was his policy of preference, noting exceptions, of course, to cases of violence.
Saunders’ position was effectively seconded by law enforcement; Clemmons, Hamlet Police Chief Scott Waters, Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelley, and officers of similar capacities from the surrounding counties all made comments of that nature at various points.
The attorney general was well-prepared with facts and figures to substantiate his contentions about the opioid epidemic.
“Operation Take Back, in which law enforcement agencies across the nation set up collection stations for the deposit of expired or otherwise unwanted medications, in October resulted in the collection, statewide, of over 13 tons of medications, much of which was of the opioid variety,” Stein said.
He further noted that 80 percent of heroin addicts get started with opioids, and that fully 90 percent of opioid-addicted persons fail to receive any type of treatment.
“If only 10 percent of heart conditions were ever treated, we would not stand for that,” Stein exclaimed, making the point that the “sickness” of opioid addiction should not be tolerated to any greater extent than any other ailment.
Moving the discussion to a local focus, Stein informed the audience of the significance of opioid abuse that is evident in Richmond County.
“In 2015, painkiller prescriptions numbered more than one and a half for every citizen in the county,” Stein quoted. “This is 50 percent higher than the state average of one painkiller prescription per resident of North Carolina.”
Stein further indicated that the amount of medication, “was equal to 132 pills per county resident.”
Local residents echoed Stein’s position as to the effect that the opioid problem was having on Richmond County. Clerk of Court Vickie Daniels offered a story of personal awareness of situations where opioid addiction had negatively affected familial ties, and Dr. John Stevenson, of Rockingham, specifically cited the deteriorative effects that opioids were having, “on the very fabric of our community.”
Comments by other notable citizens effectively called for greater awareness, if not direct action, by private individuals to help curb the proliferation of painkillers, perhaps even to the extent of requesting alternative modes of addressing the need to reduce their physical discomfort.
Ed Ross, an official with Integrated Pain Solutions based in Southern Pines (but with facilities across the state), noted that, “Clinics are responsible for only 10 percent of the opioids that are dispensed,” and cited his agency’s treatment of, “600 new patients each month” as an indicator that, “treatment is being sought and provided” from clinics such as his.
Thus, if such facilities account for only 10 percent of the opioids in the community, it may be inferred that the physicians themselves could possibly do more to help reduce the number of patients who ultimately fall victim to the addictive spell of such medications.
Regardless as to whom or what the problem may be ultimately attributed, there is no doubt that there is an opioid issue in greater North Carolina, and Richmond County in particular. But Stein, with the support of local officials and stakeholders in Richmond County and the surrounding areas, is energetically facilitating action across the state to directly address this epidemic.