#3. Drugs an ongoing problem in 2013
Drugs remained one of the top issues on local law enforcement's agenda during 2013, a problem that has persisted over the past several years.
When it comes to the most serious drug plaguing Haywood County, all law enforcement officials agree — prescription pill abuse remains the most pervasive.
"There are a number of drugs that are a problem in Haywood County, but prescription pills are still the No. 1 concern, I would say, because that's what we are seeing overdose deaths coming from," said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.
Current statistics show every one in six deaths investigated by the Haywood County medical examiner are the result of prescription drug overdose. Though that number is a decrease from the one in four just two years ago, agency leaders would like to see it even lower.
“We still have an unacceptable amount of people who are overdosing on prescription drugs,” said Hollingsed. "We're not trying to say that any of the drugs are any less of a problem than another. It's just the number of overdose deaths we have are coming from opiate prescription drugs."
Molly Richardson, a nurse in the Behavioral Health Unit at Med-West Haywood, said meth is also a commonly abused drug.
"This is a highly addictive drug that causes significant declines for individuals who use it. Our representatives and law enforcement have made huge strides to reduce the access to the chemicals required to make this drug and this has helped to reduce some access, but unfortunately it is still available in our communities," she said.
Law enforcement agencies across the county formed a partnership earlier this year in a concerted effort to tackle the county's major crime issues, starting with drugs. The result was a seven-month multi-agency undercover operation that ended in the arrest of at least 25 suspected drug dealers in November.
The majority of the suspects worked independently of one another in different parts of the county selling a variety of drugs including methamphetamine, marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin and prescription pills.
The arrests would likely have never happened had the agencies not come together to work toward one common goal by sharing information daily and keeping track of the drug activity that went beyond town and city limits.
"Drug dealers don't know jurisdictional boundaries and they don't care what jurisdiction they are in...the bottom line is we are chasing after the same people," said Hollingsed.
Since Sheriff Greg Christopher took office, drug enforcement has more than doubled, he said, resulting in a more than 30 percent increase in drug arrests.
Canton Police Chief Bryan Whitner said the continuing partnership will make a difference in other crimes as well.
"I hope our job is not done and that we can continue to make a positive impact. Our goal is to eliminate drugs 100 percent so that in turn we can reduce property crimes, reduce fraud. Though we know in reality that may not be possible, we want to send the message to drug dealers that we aren't going to tolerate it," Whitner said.
Last year and in early 2013, law enforcement began a battle against a new type of drug — synthetics.
Bath salts and synthetic marijuana were legally being sold in many gas station convenience stores and were most popular with teens because there were no age restrictions when it came to buying the drugs. Those who abused the drugs were exhibiting psychotic behavior, seizures and in extreme cases, death.
Because they were marketed as potpourri and labeled "not for human consumption," store owners got away with the sales. However, efforts by local law enforcement and legislators have made a difference in synthetic drug abuse locally.
Hollingsed and Canton Police Chief Bryan Whitner sent letters out to convenience store owners in Waynesville and Canton that sold the products, pleading for them to pull them from the shelves. Most of them did, except for one store in Waynesville.
That's when concerned parents and several teens took it upon themselves to try and make a difference. On a snowy day in February, about 20 people stood in front of the business bearing signs protesting the sale of synthetics. It wasn't long until the products were no longer being marketed at the store, either.
A law that went into effect this year covers all of the chemical combinations found in synthetics right now and should put a damper on the problem until better legislation can be drafted.
"So far the chemical combinations that were sold are all covered under the new statute," said Hollingsed.
Richardson said she's seen a significant decline in patients' use of synthetic drugs as well.
"Many individuals reports that they have tried these drugs in the past but had a very negative reaction to their use and no longer use them," she said.
Though the problem has lessened locally, it's not something to forget about.
"It's something that parents still need to look out for because you can still order this stuff over the Internet or go to a surrounding state, so it's still something to be aware of because it is still out there, it's just not here locally," said Hollingsed.
Whitner thanked local businesses for stopping their sales of the products.
"When they got on our side to help alleviate some of that, it was a huge benefit to us," he said.
Going into a new year
For law enforcement, continuing the collaboration with local agencies will be key in battling drugs in the next year. However, making arrests won't be the only way to solve the drug problem.
Education and awareness is a key part of making a difference in the amount of drug abuse in the county, said Canton Police Chief Bryan Whitner.
Drugs in Our Midst, an educational program that makes presentations about drugs to clubs, churches and other groups in the county has been and will continue to be a key part of awareness locally, the agency leaders agreed.
"People are becoming aware of just how dangerous prescription drugs are and that they aren't safe drugs," said Hollingsed.
Pill takeback events and prescription pill drop boxes located at law enforcement agencies across the county have been effective. After the drugs are collected, they are sent to Raleigh for safe disposal. In Maggie Valley, the number of people dropping off pills has increased drastically this year, Sutton said.
"No matter where you are in the county, there is now a convenient place for people to drop off prescription drugs to get them out of the house and get them out of the hands of kids and grandkids," said Hollingsed.
Legislators have also taken steps to alleviate drug problems. Earlier this year, Sen. Jim Davis began working closely with local law enforcement leaders, especially Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed, to draft bills to help officers combat drugs in the community.
Another new law requires pharmacists to report patient prescription information into the statewide database called the controlled substance reporting system no later than 72 hours. This allows other doctors and pharmacists to check the database and prevent patients from abusing the system by “doctor shopping” for pills.
The law also allows specially trained officers access to the system, which was not possible before. This change will make it much easier for detectives to investigate cases involving the abuse and sale of prescription medication.
Hollingsed hopes state officials will take another look at a law that would require doctors to use the statewide substance reporting system to prevent users from going from doctor to doctor to fill multiple prescriptions.
In the medical community, Richardson said she hopes to soon see treatment programs for drug addicts expanded in the county.
"As a crisis program we are constantly trying to find continuing treatment programs for clients that have stabilized on our inpatient unit but they need additional time in treatment. The longer a person stays in treatment, the better their odds of overcoming their addiction. We need to have treatment available when individuals are ready. Many times people have to wait for days and even weeks to try to find a treatment program and this often leads to relapses," she said.
The best local resources that Richardson currently recommends include 12-step support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery as well as Smoky Mountain Center, which has a help line open 24/7 at 1-800-849-6127.