Opioid overdoses took 1,200 lives in North Carolina last year – part of an 800 percent increase since 1999 whose body count has now surpassed 12,000.
So when lawmakers approved the final state budget late last month, many expected the bipartisan concern would lead to significant funding to combat the opiate problem.
But while the budget did improve funding for the state’s Controlled Substances Reporting System and funneled $10 million in federal grants to treatment services, it was well under what Gov. Roy Cooper called for in his suggested budget and only about half of what was called for in the bi-partisan Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act.
N.C. Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she was disappointed – but not necessarily surprised.
Before her retirement this year, Robinson worked for Piedmont Health Services for 35 years, working with people dealing with sickle cell, HIV and addiction. The work brought her face-to-face with a lot of people struggling with opioid addiction.
“This is not a new thing in our state,” Robinson said. “It’s just getting more attention now because different populations are being affected.”
When communities of color and poor rural white people struggled with heroin addiction, Robinson said, it could be more easily ignored. But with more middle class white North Carolinians now facing prescription drug addiction and the way it can lead to dependence on illegal drugs, more lawmakers are waking up to the problem.
But they are still not doing enough to make an adequate commitment to the issue, Robinson said.
“I’m extremely disappointed with how the budget came out,” Robinson said. “I think it shows that even the Republicans who joined in to talk about the problem didn’t really mean it. I think they feel it’s a population of people they feel they don’t get their votes or their funding from. So they don’t have to make it a priority. But all people in all communities count and we ought to be doing more than talking about it.”
There has been progress on the issue, from more funding for medication and training to stop overdoses to changes in the way prescription painkillers are prescribed. A small pilot program to treat opiate overdoses has been funded in Wilmington, the seat of New Hanover County which has one of the highest instances of opioid related deaths. The problem there has led the county health department to produce a series of public service announcement videos.
But Robinson said lawmakers need to make a deeper commitment to battling the problem – including providing increased funding for mental health treatment, which has for years taken hits at the state and the local level.
“There are a lot of people who are self-medicating for serious mental and emotional issues,” Robinson said. “We can’t say we’re serious about addiction and cut funding for mental health.”
Gov. Roy Cooper has tried to push the issue to the forefront, both in his proposed budget and also by releasing county-by-county statistics on opioid deaths. In a series of speeches and public appearances, Cooper has continued to press lawmakers to properly address the problem.
Late last month, at an annual summit on opioid addiction of law enforcement officers, health care officials and politicians, Cooper unveiled a series of steps to combat the problem.
At the summit Lorenzo Jones, co-founder and executive director of the Connecticut-based Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, talked about a holistic approach to the opioid problem. He warned against repeating the drug policies of the 80s and 90s which prioritized imprisoning addicts – especially people of color convicted of drug offenses – rather than treating addiction as a public health problem.
“Public policy must protect people in our society, not justify our avoidance of them,” Jones said at the summit. “The bum, the person hooked on drugs, the prostitute – we look down on them when we should be helping them,” Jones said.
Jones talked about the need for a growing emphasis on harm reduction over just punishment, focusing on lawmakers in the room and emphasizing the work they must do and the funds they must commit.
“A guiding principle of harm reduction is we meet people where they are,” Jones said. “There are people sitting in places you can’t imagine in your worst dream, and they are depending on you to keep your word.”