Editor’s note: This is a four-part series looking at the opioid crisis in ENC. Below are links to the previous stories.
BEAUFORT, N.C. (WNCT) — “We all have to understand that we have a heroin problem today because of the prescription opioid problem we had over the past 15-20 years,” Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck said.
Carteret County knows the opioid epidemic.
“We’re on the front lines of this, and we saw the epidemic and the problems of this as it was coming about,” Buck recalls about the drug issues he saw before opioids.
“At that time in the late 90s, the biggest part of what we were seeing was cocaine and crack cocaine,” Buck said.
Then, as prescription painkillers became more common, he realized how big of an issue this could be.
The numbers we were looking at then, they were shocking to us at the time because we didn’t have overdose deaths from cocaine or crack cocaine.Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck
According to National Academies of Medicine, many with opioid addictions started with prescription painkillers (reference 2). These painkillers were marketed by pharmaceutical companies as safe and non-addictive. A claim Buck can tell you is false.
“A lot of people who are sitting in this jail today are here because of their addiction issues,” Buck said. He also said he saw crimes increase related to people trying to fuel their addictions.
“When I was a deputy sheriff, I took numerous reports on medication that was stolen,” said Buck.
Buck and District Attorney Scott Thomas partnered to create solutions against this epidemic.
“We actually started the first prescription take-back program in the state of North Carolina, back in 2008,” said Buck.
Around the same time, they focused on education and prevention efforts.
“We would do these things years ago and we would have four or five people there, people didn’t realize it was a problem,” Thomas said.
Over the course of the years, they’ve continued their partnership.
“It’s to the benefit of everyone, that if someone runs afoul of the law, that we try to give them the tools to turn their life back around so that they don’t have to come back to court, so they don’t have to be re-arrested,” Buck said.
Thomas said they try to give a second chance to first time offenders.
“And part of that includes pretrial programs, working with our sheriffs and county jails to provide for bond modifications so that offenders who are charged can go participate in patient treatment, if necessary, over a long period of time, or outpatient,” Thomas said.
And the problem doesn’t just impact the addict, it also impacts extended family members.
“Oftentimes we have parents and grandparents asking, ‘what can you do to help us?’ Our child is addicted and they won’t go get treatment,” says Thomas.
“And sometimes the only way to help someone is arrest someone, and charge them with a crime,” Buck said. “I say that, and sometimes that may sound silly to some people, but sometimes that’s the only way, to try to get the person to a point where they would then take the first step to recovery.”
While they try to help people with addiction issues, they’re also prosecuting the traffickers fueling the crisis. Thomas said if a person dies from an overdose, they’ll seek a form of justice.
“If we have sufficient evidence, we can charge that case as a homicide case,” said Thomas.
That’s because they’ve been dealing with this crisis since the beginning.
“There are lots of drug dealers out there who they themselves would never touch a drug but they’re selling that death and destruction to people in our communities, and causing overdoses, overdose deaths, and addiction that could last a lifetime,” Thomas said.
Over time, Buck and Thomas say law enforcement has taken a multi-faceted approach to dealing with this issue.
“It’s prevention and education. It is enforcement and it’s also treatment and recovery,” Buck said.
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