Zoned Out: Tackling drug problems in Haywood County
When it comes to the most serious problem plaguing the county, all law enforcement officials agree — prescription pill abuse is the most pervasive.
As Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed puts it, prescription pills are “equal opportunity addictors.”
It’s a drug that affects everyone — rich, poor, young and old.
“We’ve had kids as young as 12 let us know that they’re illegally taking prescription drugs, and then we’ve had people in their 80s out doctor shopping because they’re addicted to pain killers,” he said.
For some, addiction comes from recreational use. For others, it can be a result of years of using after a medical condition and then finding they are entangled in a web of addiction.
That’s because opiates act like an endorphin to the brain, and when a person addicted to the pills attempts to quit, they experience excruciating withdrawals.
Recent numbers show prescription pill overdoses kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined. And most victims are unsuspecting teenagers looking for a good time.
Hollingsed said the No. 1 source for pills is the family medicine cabinet. Most teens who abuse prescription drugs get them easily, primarily from friends and relatives.
It’s a story seen time and again locally. A deadly combination of Fentanyl and Oxycodone is what killed 20-year-old John Chapman Jr. in 2009.
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Treadway suffered from severe brain damage after taking what could have been a deadly cocktail of Methadone and Percocet that same year.
In 1999, the number of deaths nationally from opioid overdoses was on par with cocaine, according to the Center for Disease Control.
But as the years have gone by, cocaine has become less of a problem with about 4,000 deaths, while prescription pill deaths have skyrocketed to almost 17,000. That number increased by 13,000 deaths in the past decade.
Here in Haywood County, the statistics are even more sobering.
Last year, 25 percent of deaths investigated by the medical examiner’s officer were prescription drug overdoses.
That number decreased slightly to 17 percent this year, but the problem is still pervasive.
“We still have an unacceptable amount of people that are overdosing on prescription drugs,” said Hollingsed. "Prescription drugs have become the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the U.S., overtaking automobile accidents."
No silver bullet
It’s difficult to pinpoint a solution to the epidemic that has swept the nation and claimed so many lives.
But Hollingsed believes that stronger legislation will help curb the problem.
“On the positive side, we are trying to get the word out as far as educating the community and we’ve made some positive inroads within our legislature,” said Hollingsed.
One new law, which began in March, requires pharmacies to check photo identification before dispensing certain prescribed narcotics. That includes some of the most widely abused, such as Oxycontin, methadone, morphine Vicodin and fentanyl. That way, pharmacists can keep track of how often a person attempts to pick up drugs.
The bill was introduced at the request of Hollingsed and with the help of Sens. Tom Apodaca and Ralph Hise.
“A couple years ago they issued a law to use an i.d. to pick up ephedrine and pseudophedrine, and it drastically decreased the number of large meth labs in our state,” he said.
Locally, the emergency room at Med-West Haywood implemented a policy that puts a cap on the amount of prescription pills a patient can receive.
After that, a patient can set up an appointment with a family physician to receive any more pills. And if emergency room workers notice a recurring patient asking for pills, they are automatically referred to substance abuse counseling.
Hollingsed would like to see lawmakers introduce other bills that would make it more difficult for people to abuse the system.
One bill awaiting approval is Senate Bill 723, which seeks to strengthen the controlled substances reporting system by requiring the department of health and human services to update the system and provide real-time prescription information.
Another would require pharmacies mandatory use of the prescription drug monitoring program and to allow narcotics officers access to view the system.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper recently listed the prescription pill epidemic as one of his department’s top five priorities in the coming year. At a recent summit with legislators in Waynesville, he talked of the need to fund a six-member unit dedicated to prescription drug diversion.
Prevention through raising awareness is another step toward solving the problem, he says.
In just the past year, The Waynesville Police Department has given more than 100 presentations about prescription pill abuse to schools, civic groups, churches, nursing homes and more.
Police departments across the county participate in pill take-back events several times each year and also have permanent drop boxes at each department location. The Clyde Police Department will be receiving one within the next few months.
The Waynesville Police Department has already installed 130 prescription pill lock boxes in homes and they still have about 30 left.
Healthy Haywood's substance abuse action team also organized a coalition to tackle the problem in 2010, which combines different groups from the community to inform the county of the prescription drug problem.
During the past year, the group has taken strides to raise awareness by making a video about addiction and treatment, passing out information at middle and high school orientations and gathering statistical information in the county.
In a recent prioritization meeting, substance abuse was the department’s No. 1 concern based on a community health assessment.
“This is the first time in at least six years, probably 10 years, that (substance abuse) jumped in front of health and nutrition,” Duginske said.
The biggest challenge, she said, is keeping the momentum going within the groups.
“There is certainly a need to come back together as a group and when you kick off a new year it’s time to renew your intentions,” Duginske said. “It can’t just be one agency or one entity to tackle the problem. The data is very clear; we didn’t just make it up. It’s a real issue in our county.”