Between 2010 and 2015, heroin deaths skyrocketed 550 percent in North Carolina, according to the chief federal law enforcement officer in Charlotte. The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina and the acting head of the DEA, local police and doctors detailed the problem at a conference in south Charlotte on Tuesday.
Jill Westmoreland Rose is the U.S. attorney over the 32 westernmost counties in North Carolina, including Mecklenburg County.
“Whenever I go out and I talk to sheriffs and police chiefs across the district,” she says, “it's the one thing they always mention: how heroin and the opioid epidemic are affecting the people in their communities.”
The epidemic started with prescription painkillers, and they’re still responsible for most opioid deaths. But DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg says there’s a new chapter.
“We know that four out of five new heroin users start on prescription pills,” he says. “Most of those folks get those pills from a medicine cabinet, from a friend.”
Once someone is addicted, heroin is a cheaper opioid that’s available on the street. Richard Hutchinson is a DEA intelligence specialist.
“Charlotte has always been a stronghold for Mexican black tar heroin, and it still is,” he says. “The two cities east of the Mississippi that you hear about black tar heroin the most are Charlotte, North Carolina, and Columbus, Ohio.”
Hutchinson says other types of heroin are becoming more common, including some laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be dangerous just to touch.
Rosenberg, the DEA head, says it's primarily made in Chinese labs, shipped to Mexico and then smuggled through traditional drug routes. The DEA has ramped up seizures of it and other opioids. But Rosenberg says that’s only part of the solution.
“We’re not going to prosecute or jail or enforce our way out of this mess,” he says.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Detective Paul Foushee backs that up. He says CMPD made nearly twice as many heroin arrests last year compared to just a few years before.
“We locked up over 360 people last year for heroin, but overdoses still went up,” he says.
That’s why the conference was about more than law enforcement. Staff from Anuvia, an addiction treatment center in Charlotte, talked about the importance of prevention and policy changes.
“One in North Carolina is the Good Samaritan law, which was passed not too long ago,” said Cindy Murphy, Anuvia’s director of prevention.
The law made the overdose reversal drug naloxone easier to get and prevented prosecution of those who try to save someone’s life with it.
“But we do have room for improvement in the area of policy,” Murphy said. She and others at the conference called for a national prescription-drug monitoring program, rather than the state-by-state patchwork that currently exists.
Stigma is another part of the problem, as some people view addiction as a character flaw rather than a medical illness. Dr. Stephen Wyatt is director of addiction for Carolinas HealthCare System.
“It literally is a disease of the brain, not unlike many other chronic illnesses,” he says.
Dr. Wyatt says there are effective medications that can assist with treatment. The key is getting people into treatment.