In the past 18 months, Orange County sheriff’s deputies have seized 2.3 kilos of heroin – enough to get addicts high 115,000 times at a cost of $5 a hit.
Last month, they joined local, state and federal officers for a Hillsborough operation netting 2 kilos (about 4 1/2 half pounds) of Fentanyl, a first for Orange County.
The synthetic opiate is more powerful than heroin and increasingly being added to it or sold in its place. Even the smallest dose can be deadly – so much so that first responders nationwide have been told to wear gloves and a mask when handling it, and take care not to get it on their skin.
That danger really drives drug sales. The goal is to get as close to an overdose as possible to get the best high, Sheriff Charles Blackwood said.
But it’s not just illegal drugs causing problems, he and others said. Many addicts now start with legally available prescription painkillers, moving later to heroin’s cheaper and more powerful fix. The resulting addictions and overdoses are creating a real mess, they said.
That’s why the Sheriff’s Office, its law enforcement and community partners have launched COORE – the Coordinated Opioid Overdose Reduction Effort. The two-part program is focused on getting drugs off the street, but also on helping addicts get clean – no questions asked.
“If you’ve got dope on you, put it in my medicine dropbox out here and come on in the door,” Blackwood said. “Basically, what I’m saying is you can wait until I find you on the side of the road dead, or you can wait until I come and arrest you for narcotics and narcotics use, or you can let me help you now.”
From there, addicts will be directed to the criminal resource office to find an outpatient or residential program, such as UNC Horizons or Freedom House. Overdose survivors will learn about COORE during follow-up visits with Orange County EMS staff and other community partners.
Giving people that kind of opportunity is an innovative and important step, said Caitlin Fenhagen, criminal justice resource manager. It will be the first time her office, located in the courthouse basement, isn’t working with people in jail or a court diversion program, she said.
“The fact that the Sheriff’s Office is offering this I think is a wonderful opportunity,” Fenhagen said, “and it’s really exciting for our office to be able to partner with them on this and to be able to get help to people before they’re in our criminal justice system.”
COORE’s work with addicts is similar to the Hope Initiative, a Nashville Police Department program started last year in Nash County. Nashville Police Chief Thomas Bashore said they’ve helped 150 people statewide since February 2016. Fewer than 15 have returned to drugs so far, he said.
They also saw property crimes fall 40 percent in the last year, he said – addicts often support their habits by stealing – and built more community partnerships. Just as important, he said, has been the significant effect on families.
Bashore told the story of a mother who struggled for years with her son’s addiction. She called Bashore the morning after they sent him to a treatment center.
“She says, I wanted you to know that last night was the first night that I slept all the way through in two years,” Bashore said. “She had to lock everything she has up, hide it from him, put it in the trunk of her car. That alone just really kind of hit me. Those inividuals that are struggling with this disease, they really do have a huge effect on other members of the family, and sometimes they’re the forgotten ones in all of this.”
The number of North Carolinians killed by heroin grew 884 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. A 2017 Office of the Chief Medical Examiner report also showed more deaths from heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl derivatives since 2014.
The medical examiner’s report showed roughly 526 heroin deaths last year, an increasing number involving fentanyl. It also noted that fentanyl derivatives – rarely seen before 2014 – were involved in 195 deaths last year.
While Orange County only had six heroin deaths from 2010 to 2015, law enforcement officials credited that to naloxone, or Narcan. The drug blocks opioid effects, giving emergency responders time to treat an overdose.
The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition reports 136 law enforcement agencies in 60 counties now carry naloxone kits, including all four Orange County agencies.
The Carrboro Police Department – the state’s first law enforcement agency to successfully use the drug – reversed its fifth overdose earlier this year. Chapel Hill police have reported one reversal, while the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has had three.
Orange County EMS crews have saved even more lives, with 267 overdose reversals between January 2014 and June 2016; 56 involved heroin, they said.
But there’s been an unintended effect, Blackwood said.
Addicts “are starting to partner up (and say), you go ahead and do your thing, and if you go over, I’ll help you,” he said. “In that scene, we roll up, it’s apparent a bunch of people have been there, but there ain’t but one there dead when we get there.”
That’s why COORE also is targeting dealers by fostering greater collaboration between local narcotics investigators, Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes said.
“Even if the victim of the overdose isn’t extremely cooperative with our investigation, we can take pieces from each one to try and pinpoint who these distributors are,” he said, “and share information with other agencies in the county, so that they can do the same, and they can adjust their enforcement priorities as they see fit.”
It’s a more focused version of what they already do, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said.
“I think this is an opportunity to say if you are a user and you need help, we want to help you,” he said. “And if you are a seller and a pusher of any illicit drugs, and particularly these that are so dangerous, then we also are united in tackling that.”