From Jill Westmoreland Rose, United States attorney and chief law enforcement officer for the 32 westernmost counties in North Carolina.
Heroin addiction is not just a public health concern. It is now a public health crisis, and one that requires a swift, collaborative and comprehensive response.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in the Charlotte area alone there have been 148 heroin overdose-related deaths in 2016, an 80 percent increase compared to the same time period last year. In 10 of the overdose deaths, Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain killer which is 80 times more potent than morphine, was listed as a contributor. Mexican drug trafficking organizations, which supply the bulk of heroin to the United States, have used Fentanyl as an additive to expand the volume of heroin. Heroin addicts, unaware of this deadly additive, are overdosing at alarming rates.
According to the DEA, heroin-related arrests have increased more than 20 percent three quarters into this year compared to 2015. These numbers do not include arrests made by local and state law enforcement. While the rigorous investigation and prosecution of heroin trafficking is important in stemming the flow of the drugs into communities, we cannot arrest our way out of this drug epidemic.
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Heroin addiction does not always begin with heroin abuse. In most cases today, the addiction cycle begins with a prescribed opioid pain medication like Oxycodone or Vicodin. These medications are highly effective in managing pain, but have extremely high addiction rates. Contrary to common perception, prescription drugs are more lethal than illegal or street drugs, killing more people in the U.S. every year than all illegal drugs combined. Alarmingly, the United States, with approximately 3 percent of the world’s population, is globally the largest consumer of prescription pain killers, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world’s consumption of hydrocodone and 81 percent of oxycodone.
The prevalence of pain medication use has led to the resurgence of heroin. Addiction to heroin can begin as easily as managing pain for a sports-related injury, routine surgery, or dental work. Pain management can quickly turn to substance abuse which may lead to heroin addiction. When prescribed pain medication runs out and can no longer be obtained legally, opioid addicts will turn to heroin, a potent drug sold much cheaper on the streets than prescription pills.
By all estimates, the opioid epidemic will only continue to escalate. In response, the three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in North Carolina have partnered with the DEA to convene the North Carolina Opioid Reduction Alliance to increase awareness of prevention efforts and prosecutions related to heroin and other opioids. Beyond a vigorous law enforcement response, we need a comprehensive strategy, one that entails the coordination of parents, teachers, students, coaches, doctors, hospitals, addiction and mental health experts, community organizations and faith-based institutions. As part of that initiative, I am convening representatives of these groups throughout the Western District to formulate an action plan to combat our region’s opioid and heroin epidemic.
The burden must not fall solely on law enforcement to eradicate this plague. A collaborative approach is required and today, we start with awareness.