The chief federal law enforcement officer in Charlotte is warning about a startling rise in heroin use.
"It's a problem that began with prescription pills," says Jill Westmoreland Rose, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. "But it's one that has grown to epic proportions. Our deaths in this district have doubled in the past year. It's a problem that's affecting all segments of our community."
The U.S. attorney's office is co-sponsoring a conference in Charlotte Tuesday on that outgrowth of the country's opioid epidemic. The acting head of the DEA, local police and health care providers will also offer perspective on prevention, enforcement and treatment. The conference begins at 9:00 Tuesday morning at Calvary Church in Charlotte.
WFAE's Marshall Terry sat down with Rose to learn more about the surge in heroin. She says there's not a typical user.
"It's across all sections of our community: rich, poor and middle class," she says. "The most frightening use is among young people. It's prevalent in high schools. Some school nurses in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system are carrying Narcan, which is an opioid antidote that can reverse an overdose. That tells you that it's affecting students."
Rose points out there is a legal and effective use of opioid medication for pain relief. Many people use it until they get past their pain. But another segment of the population develops a chemical addiction. When they can no longer get a prescription from a doctor, they sometimes turn to the street, where heroin is much cheaper than prescription painkillers.
"Here's the other thing about the heroin of today," she says. "Because marijuana is legal in so many states, (some) Mexican marijuana farmers have now gone to growing poppies. They then use their other smuggling routes to get it to the United States, and they have found that poppy growth and opium is a much more profitable item than marijuana. The seizures at the border of heroin have doubled in the last few years. It's incredible. It's not coming from Colombia, and it's not coming from the Middle East like it used to. It's coming from Mexico."
The opioid epidemic has accelerated in the 2000s. From Rose's point of view, it's still getting worse. She says law enforcement can't arrest its way out of the epidemic: It's essential to partner with health care providers to work on prevention and treatment as well.
You can hear more of their conversation by clicking the play button at the top of this page.