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On a mission to fight drug abuse, help families

To Jean Parris, the drug bust in Haywood County last month wasn’t just a matter of locking up suspected drug dealers.

It was about saving lives.


“They are causing death,” Parris said of the drug dealers arrested in the undercover drug operation.

Fatal, accidental drugs overdoses have reached epidemic proportions in the past few years. The main culprits are prescription drugs obtained fraudulently and then resold on the street.

Illegal use of potent and addictive prescription pills have pushed substance abuse to the top of the list of health concerns in Haywood County’s latest community health assessment conducted annually. That’s up from third place in 2008.

Over the past two years, one in five deaths investigated by the Haywood County Medical Examiner are attributed to overdoses from drug abuse, according to Gary Wooten, the county medical examiner. And the vast majority of those are prescription pain narcotics.

“People just don’t realize how dangerous it is,” Wooten said.

Overdoses have also caused debilitating paralysis, organ failure, nervous system impairment and brain damage. It also 

While Parris reviles dealers, she has sympathy for drug users whose lives are ruined by their addiction, however.

“The users are not bad people. The users are sick people and we want to get them help,” Parris said. “We feel like they don’t need to be in jail but in extensive rehab.”

But for families who know a loved one is using drugs, reporting them to the police is really the only option to get them help, unless the user can be convinced to go to rehab of their own accord and there’s money to pay for it. 

Parris realizes it’s hard to report someone you love to the police, but offers families this advice.

“If they are in jail, they are safe. They are not dead,” Parris said. “The safest place for them to be is in jail, but it is a hard decision.”

Parris said the recent undercover investigation that brought down 31 suspected drug dealers in Haywood County was a positive move in the fight.

“I am so proud of these guys,” Parris said of the police and sheriff’s officers that carried out the operation. “They care about our community and what is going on with our youth.”

Parris, 74, has been pushing the message of illegal prescription drug abuse through a program called Drugs in Our Midst. She has the tenacity of a bulldog, compassion of a mother hen and stamina of a race horse.

She’s given 170 talks and programs in Haywood County over the past two years for churches, community clubs, school groups, law enforcement, civic leaders, local government boards and anyone who is willing to listen. 

Along with the talks, she’s organized benefit concerts, support groups, marches, vigils — anything to get the word out that drug abuse, particularly prescription drug abuse, is a deadly epidemic. Parris has amassed a team of volunteers to help sound the alarm, including pastors and family who have lost loved one to drug overdose.

Raising awareness for drug abuse is a fulltime mission for Parris, although she does it purely as a volunteer.

“We are proactively educating the communities about the epidemic of drug abuse in the county. The whole family is torn apart. Their heartbreak is unbelievable,” Parris said, blinking back tears of her own. “I’ve been doing this for two years and I still cry about it.”

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