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Known as "The Tarheel State," North Carolina (the 12th state to join the union) is legendary for the sheer will, dogged gumption and unwavering bravery of its people. Though once a pejorative term, shortly after the civil war the "Tarheel" moniker came to invoke a sense of pride; it came to refer to how the stubborn residents of North Carolina dug their heels in during battle and refused to give up their ground, while many lesser fighters retreated.
But sadly, the trappings of the modern era have shown us that there are some battles that can't be won by determination alone. Despite their famously strong power of will, the "Tarheel" spirit has been no match for the unyielding wave of opioid addiction that has swept across the United States over the last 25 years, decimating communities and ruining otherwise promising young lives.
At the root of the opioid tsunami are doctors who over-prescribe these highly addictive drugs, often when lesser and far more safe medications (like a simple Tylenol, Excedrin, or Advil) will do. Prescription painkillers (opioids) are highly addictive, in large part because they activate the powerful reward centers in the human brain. These drugs trigger the release of endorphins, (your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters.) Endorphins mask or interrupt your perception of pain and enhance feelings of pleasure and happiness, which creates a short-lasting but extremely powerful sense of well-being. It's only human to love the feeling. And, when an opioid starts to wear off, it's in our human nature to crave the return of that wonderful sense that everything is perfect and as it should be. This is the first step on the path toward addiction, and it can happen even to people who think they're being vigilant.
It may seem like a few pills couldn't hurt, but this is at the root of why opioids are so incredibly dangerous. Just one or two of few these prescription pain pills can get people hooked and send them off on a downward spiral into the throes of full-on addiction. Opioids have taken a particularly tight choke hold over the American south, laying waste to many rural communities, and because prescription painkillers often lead to heroin addiction (as heroin is cheaper than the pills, and usually far easier to obtain) the heroin problem has exploded as well.
In a recent study examining the opioid wave in North Carolina, counties were deemed "high risk" if they had higher than the national rate of 12.5 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people, and lower than the national rate of 9.7 providers of medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders. The results of the study were sobering. 41 of North Carolina's 100 counties qualified as "opioid high-risk" areas, making it one of the states with the highest number of "at risk" counties in the United States.
According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2017 alone, 1,953 people died from opioid overdoses in North Carolina, and there were roughly 72 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people! Given these numbers, it's not surprising that overdose death rates in the state are higher than the national average and rising ever higher. While the abuse of opioids skyrockets, small towns and communities across the state are scrambling to find a solution to the growing problem.
And, other enemies lie in wait. Opioid abuse often comes along with misusing other substances. According to the CDC, more than half of the 4.2 million Americans who misused prescription opioids between 2012 and 2014 also engaged in binge drinking. This is a particularly concerning problem for young people, who remain especially vulnerable.
A 2017 study focusing on substances abused by youth in North Carolina yielded some troubling numbers:
Of children aged 12-17 in North Carolina, 4% reported using prescription painkillers in a way other than dictated by a doctor. This is frightening when we remember that in many cases it only takes a few pills to become addicted.
The same study examined the alcohol-related behaviors among high school students (grades 9-12) and 16% reported they had drunk alcohol for the first time BEFORE age 13. And, 27% reported they had had a drink within the last month.
Even more alarming is the fact that 12% of the high school students surveyed reported they had 4 or more drinks of alcohol in a row (if they were female) or 5 or more drinks of alcohol in a row (if they were male) within the last month.
Among high school students (grades 9-12) in North Carolina, 37% reported they had used marijuana. This is particularly worrying because marijuana is known to affect brain development in minors and can also be a gateway to harder and far more harmful drugs.
In the same study of North Carolina high school students (grades 9-12) 5% reported that they had used cocaine or a cocaine-based substance one or more times.
While the outlook for the Tarheel state by the numbers looks bleak, the good news is that North Carolina has resources for those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. SAMHSA's Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator records show that in 2019, there are were over 468 substance abuse rehabs in North Carolina.
The late James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced." This is true of every addiction, no matter the substance.
The Tarheel State will prevail by doing what it has always done-digging in its heels, and bravely facing the fight. If you are battling drug or alcohol addiction and are ready for assistance, there are multiple ways to take the first step and ultimately break the cycle. Help is here, no matter where you live, urban or rural, near or far.
North Carolina State Facts
North Carolina Population: 8,047,333
Law Enforcement Officers in North Carolina: 20,006
North Carolina Prison Population: 48,300
North Carolina Probation Population: 112,900
Violent Crime Rate National Ranking: 19
2004 Federal Drug Seizures in North Carolina
Cocaine: 391.3 kgs.
Heroin: 3.1 kgs.
Methamphetamine: 12.7 kgs.
Marijuana: 237.7 kgs.
Ecstasy: 5,921 tablets
Methamphetamine Laboratories: 243 (DEA, state, and local)
North Carolina Drug Situation: North Carolina has experienced a significant increase in drug trafficking activity, the majority of it due to the influx of Mexican nationals into the state. Since 1980, Raleigh's Hispanic population of immigrants grew 1,189 percent, or by an estimated 72,580 immigrants. Also, since 1980, Charlotte's Hispanic population of immigrants grew 962 percent, or an estimated 77,092 immigrants. Greensboro's Hispanic immigrants grew 962 percent as well, or by an estimated 62,210 immigrants. These figures are only estimates due to the difficulty in identifying the number of immigrants located throughout the state with illegal residency. While the immigrants themselves may not be involved in trafficking, their presence allows traffickers from Mexico to hide within ethnic Mexican communities. They most commonly transport and distribute cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine. In addition, the rapid population growth in areas such as Raleigh has resulted in additional crime, including an increase in drug trafficking activity.
Cocaine in North Carolina: North Carolina is a staging and transshipment point to states to the North, including Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and others. The state continues to be a destination state for cocaine. It is readily available and major traffickers take advantage of the state's interstate highways, which are major transshipment routes for cocaine being transported from source areas to other states. These major source areas are California, Arizona and Texas, with major sources of supply being traffickers based in Mexico. Cocaine is usually shipped in private or rental vehicles. Cocaine loads arriving in North Carolina by Mexican organizations are used to supply crack distribution networks that further present an enormous social threat to North Carolina's inner city communities.
Heroin in North Carolina: Heroin use and availability is extremely low in North Carolina. Many areas of the state, such as Greenville, Durham and Rocky Mount, report that heroin abuse has been limited to an increasingly smaller population of older abusers. In 2003, the Raleigh RO initiated a heroin investigation of a Chinese trafficker who subsequently died leaving abusers in the Raleigh area without a source for heroin. The North Carolina Highway Patrol occasionally makes small one to four pound seizures of heroin transiting the state enroute to the Northeast.
Methamphetamine in North Carolina: Methamphetamine cases have been on the rise in some parts of North Carolina, such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Asheville; however, rural communities in many counties of the western part of the state have experienced a surge in methamphetamine trafficking. The primary sources are located in West Coast states, principally California and Arizona, but a significant supply also derives from Mexican traffickers in northern Georgia, e.g. Gainesville and Dalton. Ethnic Mexican traffickers from these states have been identified as the clandestine manufacturers and sources of supply for methamphetamine in multi-pound quantities. In 2003, the Asheville Post of Duty targeted a large Gainesville-based Mexican methamphetamine trafficking group distributing over forty pounds monthly to abusers in western North Carolina. Clandestine labs producing one to two ounce amounts continue to proliferate in the central and western part of the state.
Club Drugs in North Carolina: The Club Drugs that are most popular in North Carolina are MDMA, GHB and LSD. The use of Dangerous Drugs has increased in popularity across the state and is especially popular with college and high-school aged people. With more than 50 four-year colleges and universities in North Carolina, there is a large potential market for club drugs. Ecstasy (MDMA) is also a problem, although not posing near the equivalent threat to most North Carolina communities as does cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. Domestic intelligence gleaned from local and state agencies in North Carolina indicate that Ecstasy use is on the rise, arriving from trafficking networks in New York, Florida and California. Most prominently distributed in larger cities and along the coastal communities, such as beach cities attracting tourist populations, authorities are targeting ecstasy distributors and their out-of-state sources of supply. The Charlotte DO is targeting the rise of local Asian gangs trafficking MDMA and conducting money laundering for other trafficking groups. There has been an increase in the use of LSD in the Charlotte area. The majority of users of the drug are in the 15 to 25 year old category caught up in the "Rave" subculture. Law enforcement agencies have identified individuals with ties to the Pacific Northwest or West Coast regions of the country distributing bulk quantities of LSD.
Marijuana in North Carolina: Marijuana is one of the most prevalent drugs in North Carolina and its availability is increasing. One cause is the recent rise in the availability of Mexican marijuana due to an influx of Mexican trafficking organizations executing smuggling operations into the state directly from Mexico via containerized cargo transported on tractor-trailer trucks, particularly in the central portion (Piedmont) of the state. In addition, marijuana is being smuggled in ever-larger amounts via campers, pickup trucks, and larger vehicles. Over the past three years, Domestic Cannabis Eradication Suppression Program authorities have seized domestically grown marijuana in increasing quantities, Specifically, 2000 seizures were 40,464 plants, 2001 seizures were 89,900 plants, and 2002 seizures were 112,017 plants.
Other Drugs in North Carolina: Regarding illegal pharmaceuticals, while not a prominent class of drugs for abuse like cocaine or marijuana, the illegal distribution and abuse of prescription narcotics is widespread through North Carolina. Abusers tend to “doctor shop” for pain medication, or as in one case, learn of a clinic or pharmacy freely distributing narcotics on demand without a prescription. Such is the case of Medi-fare Pharmacy and the adjoining Grover Medical Clinic in Grover, NC. Before being shut down, Medi-fare was the number one dispenser of methadone in the country and the number four dispenser of OxyContin. Together, Medi-fare and the Grover Medical Clinic supplied abusers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Michigan and Virginia with tens of thousands of dosage units monthly.
DEA Mobile Enforcement Teams: This cooperative program with state and local law enforcement counterparts was conceived in 1995 in response to the overwhelming problem of drug-related violent crime in towns and cities across the nation. There have been 409 deployments completed resulting in 16,763 arrests of violent drug criminals as of February 2004. There have been five MET deployments in the State of North Carolina since the inception of the program: Monroe, Kinston, Durham, Lumberton, and Rocky Mount.
DEA Regional Enforcement Teams: This program was designed to augment existing DEA division resources by targeting drug organizations operating in the United States where there is a lack of sufficient local drug law enforcement. This Program was conceived in 1999 in response to the threat posed by drug trafficking organizations that have established networks of cells to conduct drug trafficking operations in smaller, non-traditional trafficking locations in the United States. Nationwide, there have been 22 deployments completed resulting in 608 arrests of drug trafficking criminals as of February 2004. There have been two RET deployments in the State of North Carolina since the inception of the program: Asheville and Charlotte.
Other Enforcement Operations in North Carolina: The OCDETF programs in the Eastern, Middle, and Western Federal Judicial Districts of North Carolina are very strong. The Western District ranks number one in prosecutions in the Southeast OCDETF Region.