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Prescription drug scourge claiming dozens of lives in Haywood

coverThe numbers are unforgiving.

One in three unexpected deaths in Haywood County are likely prescription drug overdoses. This year alone, there have been eight drug-related deaths — out of 25 unexpected deaths in all. And that doesn’t include two deaths last week that the county medical examiner suspects are overdoses as well. 


“We’ve got a problem. There is definitely a problem,” said Gary Wooten, Haywood County Medical Examiner.

Prescription drugs are a growing epidemic, whether obtained fraudulently by faking ailments to get a doctor’s script or bought illegally on the street. Users take higher doses than would normally be prescribed for a recreational high.

But it can be a deadly pastime, with overdoses on the rise.

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Last year, drug overdoses made up less than one-fifth of unexpected deaths. Years before, the average was about one in four. Most residents don’t realize how prevalent drug overdose deaths are.

“You don’t really realize this is a problem until it hits close to home,” said John Chapman of Canton, whose son died of a prescription drug overdose about four years ago.

Not long after his son’s death, Chapman became an advocate against drug use and began educating parents on the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.

Today, there are community outreach programs designed specifically to warn people about the adverse effects of drug abuse, both on the user and the user’s loved ones. And given the rise in drug-related deaths, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office and town police departments are banding together to share information on drug activity in the county.

Back in July 2009, Chapman’s 21-year-old son, John Chapman Jr., was living in the basement apartment of his father’s house and working at Unison Engine Components making jet engine parts.

“John was a really, really good kid,” Chapman said. “He had a good head on his shoulders.”

He did not have a history of drug abuse, had never been arrested on drug-related charges and, as far as his father could tell, showed no signs of drug use. As a teen, he experimented with alcohol but not more than anyone else, Chapman said.

“Doing what he did for a living, he could not have done drugs very long, and I know every father will say that,” he said.

But the day before he died, John Chapman Jr. went with a friend to buy Fentanyl patches, pain medication given to cancer patients. The opiate is said to be more potent than morphine.

That night, he used the patch and then lay down to sleep. The next morning around 7:30 a.m., his sister went downstairs to rouse him from bed so he wouldn’t be late for work.

“She went down to wake him up, and he was cold,” Chapman said.

Because his son’s death was unattended, meaning no one was present when he died, state law requires the county medical examiner to perform an autopsy. Autopsies are particularly important when the deceased is 20 to 50 years old, which is usually too young to die of completely natural causes. During all autopsies, a toxicology study is performed.

In Haywood County, most of the unattended deaths in that age range are the result of a drug overdose. When he starts an autopsy, Wooten said a few factors cause him to suspect an overdose.

“There are some common things in there,” Wooten said. But, “The biggest common denominator is they are young, and they are dead.”

During his six years as medical examiner, Wooten said about one-fourth of his cases are drug overdose deaths — and most are prescription drug overdoses. Wooten estimated that he has autopsied about 475 people during the last six years, meaning about 118 died because of prescription drugs in Haywood County.

The plan for fighting back against the upsurge in prescription drug abuse is two-fold — education and enforcement. People must be taught about the perils of prescription drugs, and law enforcement agencies must up their attempts to find and charge dealers.


Cooperative enforcement

In recent weeks, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office and town police departments have bolstered a countywide drug enforcement partnership.

“We are stronger, more effective and have greater resources at our disposal when we work together,” said Sheriff Greg Christopher, who assumed the office of sheriff last month.

When vying for the post, Christopher pledged better interagency cooperation as one of his top priorities. And in just a few short weeks on the job, he has already met several times with other law enforcement leaders to talk about Haywood County’s prescription drug problems.

“This is an extremely serious problem,” said Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes, Christopher’s second-in-command recruited from Waynesville’s detective division. “I know with everyone working together we can be more successful than by ourselves.”

The renewed partnership will get the different law enforcement agencies talking to one another on a weekly basis, sharing tips and information about possible drug activity to combat the scourge more effectively.

Both Christopher and Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed stated that criminals don’t know jurisdictional lines and aren’t simply going to sell within a town’s limits. Meetings among the agencies will focus mostly on prescription drug cases, which currently make up the majority of drug-related cases in the county.

“Prescription drug abuse is by far the most serious issue we are dealing with,” Hollingsed said. “It seems like 90 percent of our drug cases.”

Last week, Hollingsed traveled to Raleigh to speak with state legislators in support of a couple of drug bills that will come before the General Assembly this year.

One bill would give local law enforcement access to the state’s controlled substance database, a catalog of all the prescriptions written for certain medications. The database currently allows agents with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation to identify people who are filling copious prescriptions — an obvious red flag.

People fraudulently obtain drugs they don’t need by faking ailments or finding a doctor willing to give them. Then they fill the prescriptions and sell the drugs on the street. And they repeat that process over and over again.

“A lot of times they don’t have the intent at all of using the drugs,” Hollingsed said.

In some cases, the person receives a prescription legitimately and even uses it but then decides to sell a few pills on the side for money.

Local law enforcement  currently doesn’t have access to the database, which could help them catch some of these individuals, because of patient confidentiality. But Hollingsed said that police would not need, or even want, to see some of the more personal details logged in the database.

“We would only want very limited access,” Hollingsed said.

To satisfy concerns over medical confidentiality, the proposed state law has built-in oversight measures so that local police departments could not access the database without cause. Police would have to document each time they use the database, which they would only be able to do if investigating an active case.

Another proposed state law would require physicians’ offices to update the database within 24 hours of writing a prescription. Currently, they have up to 30 days, which gives drug abusers and drug dealers time to go from doctor to doctor collecting prescriptions before anyone catches on.

“A person can do an awful lot of doctor shopping in 30 days,” Hollingsed said.

While re-selling prescription drugs is illegal, enforcing the law and catching perpetrators is difficult. It’s not black and white like marijuana or cocaine, both of which are illegal to even possess.

“Those (prescription drugs) are coming from people with valid scripts,” said Det. Mark Mease, a narcotics officer with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. “That is where the biggest problem lies.”

If the person has a valid prescription, police officers have to catch the individual in the act of selling the pills. The people selling them either don’t realize or don’t care about the damage prescription drug abuse causes. It is just another way to earn some cash. 

Pills that may not cost much when obtained with a prescription from a pharmacy can be sold on the street for exponentially more. Just one Oxycodone pill can go for $30. Times that by the 10 or 20 pills given out by doctors.

Law enforcement sees people of every age selling prescriptions.

“We see people up in their 70s selling medications to make money,” Mease said.

Prescription drugs are also referred to as equal opportunity addicters because anyone can easily get hooked on them.

“I think the prescription problem is increasing just because of the fact that we are seeing younger people using that,” Mease said.

In many cases, agencies rely on citizens or confidential informants to tell them about people who are dealing drugs and let them know where the person will be and when. The Haywood County Sheriff’s Office fields about 680 calls a year regarding controlled substances, Mease said.

Law enforcement agencies also count on doctors’ offices to call in their suspicions.

Once officers are able to build a case against a prescription drug dealer, that person could face five to 20 years of mandatory prison time.


Educating everyone

Arresting prescription drug dealers is not enough, however, to combat the problem. As long as people are still addicted to prescriptions and willing to pay a premium for pills, someone will find a way to sell them. And parents, children and even grandparents will continue to die from overdoses — unless someone intervenes.

Jean Parris, a 73-year-old Canton resident, runs an educational program called “Drugs in our Midst” to encourage Haywood County residents to intervene and get help for loved ones addicted to drugs, or simply to teach friends and family members about the dangers of drug abuse.

During the “Drugs in our Midst” presentations, Parris and law enforcement officials relay Haywood County-specific drug statistics to attendees, and someone is always on hand to tell his or her story about the loss of a loved one to drugs or personal struggle with addiction.

“It kind of brings it all home to people when they hear this personal experience,” Parris said.

John Chapman is one of the people who regularly speaks at “Drugs in Our Midst” events.

“When Jean (Parris) calls, I do whatever she asks,” Chapman said.

Chapman added that he volunteers in whatever way he can to help prevent other people’s children from overdosing. He is currently mentoring juveniles in Jackson County who have substance abuse problems. For Chapman, sharing the story of his son’s death is cathartic.

“Every time I say my son’s name, I feel better. Every time I talk about him, I feel better,” Chapman said.

Although everyone involved believes they are making a difference, whether big or small, Chapman said he would still like to see more parents come out to the drug education talks.

“Our biggest problem, I think, is getting the message to the parent,” Chapman said. “The only way we make changes is by educating people.”

In addition to working with police to offer educational programming at schools, churches and community centers, Parris also runs a family support group at 7 p.m. the first and third Tuesdays of the month at the Community Kitchen in Canton for people who have family members using drugs. A counselor frequently comes to the meeting to talk about how they can help their loved ones.


Half the battle: understanding the problem

The next “Drugs in Our Midst: Prescription Pills and Synthetic Drugs Overview” program will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, in the student center auditorium at Haywood Community College.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed and Haywood Sheriff Det. Mark Mease will speak about drugs in the county.

Free. Refreshments to follow. 828.648.1358.


Prescription drug drop-boxes

If you have old medications that you no longer need, do not flush them down toilet or toss them in the trash. The Haywood County Sheriff’s Office and town police departments have boxes at their stations for people to drop off unused meds. The departments will properly dispose of the drugs for you. 

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