The opioid epidemic has wrecked families and communities across the nation. Perhaps you or your family, a coworker, a neighbor – likely someone you know has been impacted. It has broken homes, left people homeless, incarcerated, or dead, and has caused social services costs to skyrocket as cities and counties try to address this growing problem. Last week in Mecklenburg County, a little boy was left crying at his daddy’s funeral. Three young men have died since Christmas. Across the county, there were more than 525 overdoses last year, up from 361 the prior year. Unfortunately, we average more than one opioid-related death per week in Mecklenburg County. Our community has experienced the impact of the opioid epidemic throughout the county.
Your Mecklenburg County commissioners unanimously approved moving forward with a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers for their role in causing harm to our community. This decision was not made lightly, and we know that approving this action was the first step in a long journey. It is an important step. Drug manufacturers told doctors and individuals that their product is non-addictive, and can be used for long-term pain management. That is not true. Unfortunately for many individuals, using the drug for a long period of time causes an addiction. The statements made, and incentives offered by drug manufacturers and distributors, created a system whereby pills flowed freely across Mecklenburg County, our state and the nation. In Ohio, at one point there were enough pills dispensed for every man, woman and child in the state to have more than 60 pills. People are responsible for their decisions and what they put into their bodies. With opioids, though, many people made that choice thinking the drug was safe and non-addictive.
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The true impact of the opioid epidemic may never be truly known. Many families do not report overdoses or addiction due to a sense of embarrassment or shame. It is sad that society marks those addicted to pharmaceutical drugs with a “scarlet letter,” resulting in those affected not seeking help! We must end the stigma. Last week, one man who is homeless uptown told us, “I cannot tell my family in North Mecklenburg that I am addicted and on the street – they would be mortified.” Students, soccer moms, bankers and even medical professionals have all been affected by this epidemic.
There is hope. Counties across the nation, including Pitt, Buncombe, Gaston and others in North Carolina, are filing suit against drug manufacturers and distributors, in order to collect damages on behalf of their communities. Mecklenburg County will fight, and fight hard, on your behalf and for all those impacted by this epidemic. This lawsuit will not cost taxpayer dollars, as the attorney fees will be paid from the damages. We will use the damages awarded for treatment, rehabilitation and education. Your county staff, along with incredible community partners and volunteers across the county, work tirelessly to help those who need treatment and support. We as a nation and community did not pay much attention to the precious lives lost due to the crack cocaine epidemic. Let us not repeat those mistakes, but instead hold accountable those who have contributed to this national epidemic. Let us stand with those who face addiction, that they may not face it alone.
Cotham, a Democrat, is an at-large Mecklenburg County commissioner. Ridenhour, a Republican, represents District 5.