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Law Enforcement Grapple With Opioid Overdoses

Narcan kits that provide naloxone
Jason deBruyn
Narcan kits that provide naloxone.

This is the second of three stories in a series looking into North Carolina's opioid drug epidemic. Read the first story here.

Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram was losing a battle against drugs.

"Our community has lost far too many lives due to overdoses," he said. "As law-enforcement officers we are sworn to protect life and property. Every life has value and losing someone to an overdose is very difficult."

Some North Carolina cities are plagued by drug abuse. A recent Castlight Health report cited Wilmington as the No. 1 city for opioid abuse and No. 4 for opioid prescription abuse. The report also highlighted Hickory, Fayetteville and Jacksonville as places where high rates of abuse occurred.

The Raleigh Police Department is responding to more calls that involve an overdose than ever before.
Credit Raleigh Police Department
The Raleigh Police Department is responding to more calls that involve an overdose than ever before.

In Raleigh, calls that include an overdose have skyrocketed. Department figures show a 78 percent increase from 2008 to 2015. By October, calls had already surpassed the level from last year. "We certainly have seen an increase in recent years in the number of overdose calls. And most of those overdoses relate to opioids," said Raleigh Police spokesman Jim Sughrue.

While the total number of calls that involve a drug overdose – 542 last year – isn’t enough to put a workload strain on the department, Sughrue said he worries about the effects of increased illicit drug use, especially opioids.

"Our concern is the public health and public safety issues that surround addiction. And the fact that we are responding to more overdose calls is a clear indication that there is a growing use of opioids here just as there is elsewhere," he said. "And that means in some cases, in many cases, addicts are eventually going to have to turn to some sort of criminal activity, to support that addiction, and that in the case of many people is going to mean burglaries and larcenies and those types of property crimes, trying to focus on stealing things that can be converted to cash which can then be converted to drugs. And there other crimes that could come into the picture, such as prostitution, particularly for female addicts."

To help reverse those trends, North Carolina has in recent years passed laws to deter risky behavior and equipped emergency responders with naloxone, a drug sold under the brand name Narcan that reverses the effects of an overdose caused by opioids like heroin.

Counties in which law enforcement carries Narcan kits
Credit North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition
Counties in which law enforcement carries Narcan kits

Changes in law enforcement have sought to help as well. More than 70 law enforcement agencies across the state now distribute naloxone to officers who can inject the potentially life-saving drug in an overdose situation. The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, which has advocated on behalf of helping drug users, recently reported the 5,000th overdose reversal thanks to naloxone.

"There are 5,000 people potentially alive today because of this program," said Donnie Varnell, Special Investigator with the Dare County Sheriff’s Office. "A couple of years ago no one knew what naloxone was and now it is the accepted way of doing business."

Varnell has traveled North Carolina to encourage law enforcement agencies to change how they approach the war on drugs. Instead of simply making arrests, he encourages police officers to help drug users. Increasingly, if officers come in contact with people who are high on strong drugs like heroin, they will transport them not to jail, but to a treatment clinic.

He said the issue hit home for him when he learned that as many as six out of every 10 young people that were coming to an emergency department were there for a drug related issue. "Which was mind boggling the first time I heard that. Because when I was little, you went to the ER because you had hurt yourself playing sports or something," he said.

In addition, laws have been tweaked to provide immunity to drug users in certain situations. The so-called 911 Good Samaritan law, for example, allows that those who experience an overdose or witness a drug overdose and seek help for the victim can no longer be prosecuted for possession of small amounts of drugs, paraphernalia, or underage drinking. The intent behind the law is to encourage drug users to seek medical help without fear of criminal repercussion. 

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to reducing drug overdose deaths. The group has advocated for these law changes and distributes naloxone in user communities. "North Carolina runs one of the largest naloxone distribution programs in the country on one of the smallest budgets,” said the group's executive director Robert Childs. "I can’t say enough about how the commitment of people impacted by drug overdose has contributed to the success of this life-saving program, but we are still struggling to fund it due to overwhelming demand."

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