9 On Your Side Investigates: Drug abuse across the East - Greenville, NC | News | Weather | Sports - WNCT.com

9 On Your Side Investigates: Drug abuse across the East

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WASHINGTON, N.C. - Cities across our state are focused this week on fighting prescription drug abuse with Operation Medicine Drop. It’s a growing problem in North Carolina experts say can quickly escalate into abuse of more dangerous street drugs and sometimes lead to fatal overdoses.

Now 9 On Your Side is finding out how law enforcement agencies across the East are fighting the epidemic.  

In his 18 years working with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, Capt. Russell Davenport has seen it all.

Last year, his narcotics unit investigated more than 200 cases of prescription drug dealing and abuse. So far this year, they’re working 26 cases. It’s a dangerous addiction that’s responsible for 1,000 deaths a year in our state, and one Capt. Davenport says often drives good people to do bad things.

“These people need these drugs and they need money,” he says. “So they start committing crimes."

It’s become such a problem in Beaufort County that Capt. Davenport applied for a federal grant so he could afford to hire a narcotics diversion officer whose sole purpose is to crack down on prescription drug abuse.

"He has been getting pills off the street by making controlled purchases from people involved in the distribution,” he says of narcotics diversion officer Greg Rowe. “He's also been in charge of properly disposing medication and also educating the public on the dangers of it."

They are dangers one Lenoir County mother knows all too well.

"It was very hard and at first, I was in denial," remembers Shannon Ruiz, whose 16-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, died of a prescription drug overdose nearly three years ago. 

It’s a personal tragedy she's now using to raise awareness among other families.

“I don't want another parent to have to bury a child," Ruiz says.

It’s an addiction law enforcement officers say often leads to the harder stuff. Heroin produces similar effects, but is cheaper. It’s something agencies across the East are struggling to control – one that's led to three apparent overdose deaths in Pitt County within the past year.

"You can find them where they're still sitting there with bands tied around their arms and even needles still sticking in their arm where it's not even been pulled out from where it killed them almost immediately," says Lt. Chad Suggs of the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office.

Recent reports show the problem has the potential to go even further. Last month, the NC Dept. of Health and Human Services issued a warning following three deaths in three counties related to a new synthetic drug.

Acetyl Fentanyl is a prescription painkiller that's five times more powerful than heroin. It’s to blame for nearly 50 recent fatal overdoses across several states – a risk it seems too many are willing to take. 

"We feel that something like Acetyl Fentanyl is a way for a drug dealer to inexpensively increase the potency of its substance and increased potency means better price, so probably better profits for the drug dealers," explains Dr. Thomas Penders, an ECU psychiatrist and director of the Impatient Behavioral Health program at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville.

Dr. Penders says Acetyl Fentanyl is part of a growing trend of new synthetic substances hitting the drug scene.

"They’re coming fast and furious from overseas laboratories and the Internet sort of facilitates people ordering this and communicating about it,” he says. “So there are a lot of new drugs where people come in [to treatment] with drug-related problems, it's kind of a new ball game."

With so much changing so quickly, how can law enforcement possibly keep up?

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper says state and federal authorities need to work together to attack the problem at its source.

"Put the king pins in jail,” he says of stopping Mexican drug cartels who distribute it here. “But on the front end, we need to work on prevention."

Prevention by way of education starts at home by parents how to sit down with their kids to talk about drug abuse, Cooper says. He also emphasizes treatment as a key part of the equation.

"I think we don't do enough as a state to fund mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment,” he said in an exclusive 9 On Your Side interview Wednesday. “If you get people off of this stuff, it can certainly help reduce the demand and hopefully the supply in the state."

If you want to be part of the solution, Operation Medicine Drop across our state runs through Saturday, March 22. Just bring your old, unwanted prescription medications to a designated drop-off site in your town and law enforcement will safely destroy them.

To find locations near you, click here: http://www.ncdoj.gov/getdoc/5386f36d-cbd7-4b76-8327-584a88985645/Operation-Medicine-Drop.aspx

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