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TOP STORY: Opioid Crisis Slams Richmond County; Triggers Visit from NC Attorney General

A chart showing that Richmond County dispensed enough opioid pills in 2016 for each man, woman and child to have 132 pills each.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Tommy Jarrell

RICHMOND COUNTY – In the United States, drug overdoses will kill more people this year than guns and automobile accidents combined.  Dr. Tommy Jarrell, Richmond County Health Director backed up this claim by recently noted that, “for people under the age of 50 Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death.”

Richmond County, while in a very rural part of North Carolina, is following the nationwide pattern of a significant increase in opioid and heroin addiction.

Opioids are a class of drug that are medically prescribed by doctors to control pain.  Opioids include painkillers such as: morphine, methadone, Buprenorphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Heroin is an illegal form of an opioid.  Opioid drugs sold under brand names include: OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan, Tylox and Demerol, to name a few.

Prescriptions for opioids are on the rise.  As shown in the graph at the top of the article, there were enough prescriptions of opioid drugs dispensed in Richmond County in 2016 for every man, woman and child in the County to have 132 pills each.

“Nationwide in 2016, there were over 97 million people who took prescription pain killers,” Jarrell said.

Prescription drug use is continuing to go up as well as heroin use (See graph above).  The prescription opioids are becoming more difficult to obtain and expensive, so people are resorting to the cheaper and more readily available heroin. 

“Meanwhile people are beginning to turn to heroin because it is a lot cheaper to get and easier to get on the street as well as being more potent,” Jarrell continued. “People can get a bigger high on heroin than on some of the prescription drugs.”

Fentanyl is another very potent pain killer.  Use of this drug has increased dramatically in the last few years.  According to the CDC, fentanyl is 50-100 times more potent than morphine.  Typically prescribed in patch and lozenge form for extreme pain conditions such as in advanced stages of cancer, it is finding its way to the streets for illegal abuse. 

The statistics for drug deaths in Richmond County is alarming as well. 

“The death rate per 100,000 population for Richmond County is 18.8 and for the state is 12.2,” Jarrell stated.  “We are on the higher side of the state average; we’re not the highest in the state, but we are on the higher side”.

Recently President Trump spoke out on the subject declaring the opioid crisis, “a public health emergency”.  Trump stated, “we can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.” 

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North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed into law the STOP Act in June 2017.  The act will impact how nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants prescribe controlled substances.  Another provision in the law will mandate quicker reporting of prescriptions being filled at pharmacies to prevent individuals from being able to receive multiple doses.

Starting in January 2018, there will be limitations on prescriptions for acute pain (five to seven days).  Beginning in January 2020, new rules will also go into effect for electronic prescribing of medications. 

“It’s going to take everyone to address this issue,” Jarrell continued. “I don’t think there’s a family anywhere that hasn’t been impacted in some way by drug abuse. As a community, we have got to address it.” 

Locally, the Drug Endanger Family Task Force has been created to bring people together to help solve the drug problem.  The task force is made up of people from the department of social services, the health department, Sandhill’s Center, private providers, law enforcement, emergency medical services, Samaritan’s Colony, as well as others from the community.

As for local treatment options, Samaritan’s Colony, which has been in operation for 42 years, offers a 28-day treatment program (male only).  While they have limited space with only 12 beds available, they will put those who want to join the program on a waiting list which currently has a backlog of about three weeks. 

“We started as an alcoholics-only treatment program,” said Harold Pearson, a staff member of 37 years. “But along came marijuana, and then crack in the early 90s, and now close to 75 percent of our referrals are  people whose primary problem is opioid addiction.

“We never refuse someone for their inability to pay,” Pearson continued. “We operate on a sliding fee scale that allows people to pay based on ability. There are a lot of rewards in this work along with significant heartbreak.

“We see people in recovery doing well, or guys who went through this program that are married and went on to have children who are now finishing college,” Pearson concluded. “And we can see the cycle of addiction has been broken in that family.  That’s really rewarding and a great feeling.”

This Thursday, the Attorney General for North Carolina, Josh Stein, will hold a press conference on the opioid crisis at the Richmond County Courthouse.  The press conference is set for 3 p.m. and the RO will have extensive coverage of the event. 

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