RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office has charged two people with death by distribution in the last two weeks. Enacted in 2019, the law makes it a felony to supply drugs that lead to an overdose death.

“If you are going to be involved in peddling that kind of controlled substance that’s going to cause that level of harm in our community- they’re going to be held accountable,” said Wake County District Attorney, Lorrin Freeman.

While some of these cases have gone through the state’s courts system, charges under this law have been slow to keep up with the pace of overdoses.

“Those are drops in the bucket compared the number of people in this state every year who are losing their lives to overdoses,” Freeman said.

Data from the North Carolina Department of Justice shows:

  • 10 cases were filed in fiscal year 2019/2020
  • 35 cases were filed in fiscal year 2020/2021
  • 46 were filed in fiscal year 2021/2022

Meanwhile, the state counted more than 3,700 overdose deaths in 2021.

“I think we’re still at the very beginning of law enforcement becoming familiar, with us knowing how jurors are going to treat it,” said Freeman.

Freeman says there are challenges in using this law. Prosecutors need to trace exactly who supplied the victim drugs. Plus, they need to prove the drugs were a direct cause of death. This can be challenging when there are more contributing factors to a death or when there is a mixture of substances.

“It takes time for a law to become well engrained into the investigation and prosecution route,” said Freeman.

The district attorney knows this can’t be the only tool to fight the opioid epidemic.

“What needs to be and has to be a full frontal assault effort to treat addiction, to get people the help they need, to make sure we are able to respond to overdoses quickly, get medical assistance to people,” Freeman said.

The multi-pronged approach is even more important as overdose rates have worsened since 2019. Health experts believe the pandemic played a role in accelerating substance abuse or triggering relapses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the pandemic presented unique challenges for people with substance use disorders and those in recovery.

Experts believe the combination of social isolation, stress, and decreased access to substance use treatment or resources were contributing factors. It’s why the combination of education, treatment and prevention continue to be at the forefront of opioid epidemic fight.