North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks with the media in Nashville following the Nash County Opioid Roundtable Tuesday. Also pictured are, from left, Nashville Mayor Donald Street, Nashville Police Chief Thomas Bashore, and Nashville manager Hank Raper.
Drew C. Wilson | Times
By Drew C. Wilson
Times Staff Writer
NASHVILLE — Attorney General Josh Stein said Tuesday that the opioid crisis is “leaving a trail of death and misery” all across the state.
Stein was in Nashville to hold a roundtable on the opioid crisis and hear about that community’s innovative Hope Initiative that de-emphasizes incarceration and helps drug users escape the grips of their addictions through treatment.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Stein said. “It’s going to take hard work, people of goodwill like here in Nashville, and I think that we can turn the tide and we can save lives.”
Nashville Police Chief Thomas Bashore said Stein’s office reached out to Nashville after hearing about the Hope Initiative, which was started 13 months ago.
“To date, we have had 128 people who have come through the doors of the Nashville Police Department seeking recovery for their substance abuse disorder,” Bashore said. “We have had some tremendous successes with individuals who have gone into long-term treatment facilities that have turned their lives around. They are not a statistic anymore.”
Stein, who was elected state attorney general in November, said he first became aware of the severity of the opioid crisis while on the campaign trail.
“It didn’t matter if I was in the mountains, if I was in the Piedmont, or if I was on the coast, it was heroin. It was prescription opioid pills,” said Stein. “It’s this crisis, and it’s confronting the whole state. This opioid crisis is killing too many people. It is leaving a trail of death and misery all across North Carolina, but what folks here in Nashville are doing is they are bringing all of the right people around the table, law enforcement, the substance abuse treatment community, the health care community, the emergency management, the city, the county. All the folks are coming together, the sheriff, the district attorney, and they are coming up with comprehensive initiatives to try to save lives.”
In Nashville, the Hope Initiative encourages people with drug addictions to come into the police department without fear of arrest.
“Anybody who has addiction can walk through the doors of the town police department and he (Bashore) will help them try to get well, to get healthy, to find recovery, so that they can become contributing members of society, to that they can be with their families, so they can take care of their kids, so they can pay taxes, so they can feel happy,” Stein said.
In the past, and still in many other communities, drug users are getting thrown in jail and not offered any help.
“You arrest somebody, put them in jail, they get out. They are still using,” said Bashore. “They haven’t learned any of the skills they need to get the help that they need, so this program truly does get them the assistance that they need and helps them walk through the process, so it’s not scary for them.”
Nashville has also started a community paramedic program where someone who has had an opioid incident will have a community sponsor check in and offer a path to recovery through the Hope Initiative.
Stein said the general community approach to help people get healthy to cut down the demand for prescription opioids is something that can be used elsewhere in North Carolina.
“I think that what they are doing here in Nashville is they are saying to people, ‘If you want to get well, we will help you get well’ and that is really encouraging and that is an approach that local communities all across North Carolina can embrace,” Stein said. “It’s something that the community should be proud of.”
District Attorney Robert Evans was among those called to participate in the roundtable, which was closed to the public and the media.
“I think it’s clear that what we are obligated to do is to continue to press to keep those who peddle and profit from the poison out of our communities and prosecute them and put them in prison,” Evans said. “That is not the only solution. It is clear now after years of science and investigation that this is also a mental health and physical disease issue. Those of us in the criminal justice system who ignore that are not doing our due diligence to our community. We have to face it. We have to be part of the solution, so that’s why I’m here today.”
Evans said the opioid crisis has been ongoing in the state for about the last five to seven years.
“The issue of mental health and substance abuse has been with us since I have been in the criminal justice system and I have been in it 40 years, eight years as a district court judge,” said Evans. “There was very few cases that came before me that didn’t have one of those issue attached to it. The overwhelming majority of crime that affects our communities have a substance abuse and/or mental health issue attached to it, and so those of us in the system need to be aware of that and fashion new best practices as best we can to deal with it.”
Stein said that his office has helped draft a bill called the STOP Act that has been embraced by members in the N.C. House and Senate. The Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act is co-sponsored by Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson.
“The STOP Act addresses this crisis in two fundamental ways,” Stein said. “It tries to reduce the number of people who become addicted in the first place by encouraging smarter prescribing practices by doctors and dentists. The other thing it does is it puts $20 million for community-based treatment and recovery services across North Carolina so that those people who are already addicted can have access to the services they need to get well.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina is one of 19 states in the country with a significant drug overdose death rate increase. In 2015, 1,567 people died of drug overdoses in North Carolina.
“We’re not going to get out of this crisis overnight,” Stein said.