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Judge Thomas Jarrell

A widely respected judge in Guilford County, known for his deep local roots and his dedication to worthy causes, died last summer of an opioid overdose.

That came as a shock to many when the autopsy report was released recently. But should it have?

That this could happen to someone like Thomas Jarrell only serves as a grim reminder that this could happen to anyone. And that drug addiction is an illness to be treated, not a moral blemish.

The stunning news should make us rethink our perceptions and attitudes about drug abuse, particularly the tragic swath opioid abuse has cut through North Carolina and across the nation. Now, regrettably, that swath includes in its wake Tom Jarrell.

Jarrell, 56, who was at the time chief District Court judge in Guilford County, died in August from an overdose of fentanyl and heroin, the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said in an autopsy released on Oct. 17. And, if we’re being honest, the picture of an overdose victim that most of us conjure in our minds was not a former assistant district attorney, a former president of the N.C. Association of District Court Judges, a member of the N.C. Governors Crime Commission and creator of North Carolina’s first DWI Traffic Court to decrease the backlog of DWI cases in Guilford County.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 Americans lose their lives daily due to opioid overdoses. Between 1999 and 2017, more than 13,000 North Carolinians lost their lives to unintentional opioid overdoses. The data are still being compiled for 2018, but the final numbers are projected to reach 1,785.

Closer to home, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reports that Forsyth County had 84 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018, up from 74 in 2017 and 55 in both 2016 and 2015. At the same time, deaths decreased in Durham, Mecklenburg and Wake counties, and statewide they fell by 5%.

What can we do about that? A lot:

Continue to encourage doctors to seek alternatives to opioids to address chronic pain.

Increase access to treatment and recovery services.

Hold drug companies accountable for promoting their painkillers with little consideration to the risk of addiction. Four drug companies agreed last week to a $260 million settlement with two counties in Ohio. Winston-Salem and Forsyth County are among more than 2,000 local governments nationwide that have filed lawsuits against prescription opioid makers and distributors.

Expanding Medicaid would help increase access to treatment. But Republicans in the legislature still steadfastly it.

This state has made some inroads on opioid addiction, which means fewer people are dying. If only someone would address the addiction in Raleigh to partisan politics.

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