Prescription bottle for Oxycodone tablets and pills on wooden table for opioid epidemic illustration

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More than 1,800 people in North Carolina died from opioid overdoses in 2017. Early results indicate that there might be a small downward trend in 2018. That’s likely cold comfort to the hundreds of families for whom it’s too late.

Joining us for the podcast is Jim O’Neill, Forsyth’s longtime district attorney, and Susan Frye, Forsyth’s Clerk of Court, who recently announced her pending retirement. Together they put together the District Attorneys Treatment Alternatives program, also known as DATA. The program uses a series of incentives to help addicts stay out of jail and get back on their feet.

It’s a bipartisan plan. O’Neill is a Republican, and Frye is a Democrat. They came up with the idea over a cup of coffee.

“I was receiving phone calls, even as a clerk of court, … asking me what I can I do with a loved one who has an addiction problem,” Frye says. “The calls were getting more frequent and, as you know, people were losing lives.”

She remembered a program she worked on many years ago when she worked for the county jail. It was designed to help people struggling with alcohol and cocaine.

She approached O’Neill, and together they agreed to work on a plan to help addicts who wanted to get clean.

O’Neill says it’s costly to keep addicts in jail while they await their court date, and most of them are only in for low-level “crimes of opportunity” they commit to fund their addiction.

But it’s also not good for family members to bail them out if there’s no plan for them to get treatment, because they’ll typically go right back to abusing the drug.

As part of the program, Vivitrol - a drug that blocks the addict’s ability to get high on opioids - is administered by injection once a month. Most of the program takes place outside of the courtroom, in community-provided drug treatment programs.

If the person charged completes the necessary steps, his or her charges will be dismissed in court.

There are seven people currently enrolled, and they are doing well with it, O’Neill says.

Heroin and fentanyl are street drugs, but this is actually a crisis that began in the doctor’s office, with prescriptions of heavily marketed painkillers, and some critics say their addictive potential was often downplayed by the pharmaceutical companies. About 10 years ago, prescription drug overdoses started to decline, but at the same time non-prescription opioids started spiking, wiping out and reversing the decline.

O’Neill says it’s tragic that someone who got hurt in an accident or a sports injury may have become an addict because they took opioids as part of their treatment and got hooked. Many eventually turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to find but also more risky.

He says the prosecutor’s main focus should not be on the addicts but on the traffickers who get the drugs into their hands.

“I have been in the school of hard knocks watching this and seeing so many lives crumble due to addiction,” O’Neill says. “The people that are bringing the poison into our communities need to be treated differently than the addicts …Those people need to be removed from society. And the way we remove them is aggressive prosecution.”

Opioids represent a local, state and national problem. Attorney General Josh Stein has put together a plan that stresses treatment, prevention and enforcement as a formula for tackling the problem.

O’Neill recently announced that he’ll make a second run for the state attorney general’s seat. He says the DATA program he and Frye launched could serve as a statewide model.

For anyone who is suffering from addiction or is dealing with a loved one who is going through it, a national helpline is available at 1-800-662-HELP.

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