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Swain's drug problem worries officials

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The beautiful mountain scenery that covers Swain County hides an ugly truth — the area is combating a major drug problem, and officials aren’t quite sure how to stop it.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran first expressed his concern to county commissioners in January when he finished compiling his department’s 2007 statistics. His findings: a startling one in three arrests made last year were for drug charges.

“Any time a third of your total arrests are for one item, that’s high,” Cochran said.

The major culprit is methamphetamine. The stimulant has been a problem in Swain and many areas of Western North Carolina for several years. Thanks in part to legislation that put medicines in the meth manufacturing process behind the counters at drug and grocery stores, only one meth lab was busted in the county in 2007. Manufacturing of the drug is way down, but possession and use aren’t, Cochran said.

In comparison, neighboring Jackson County reported 19 percent of all arrests were drug-related. In Macon County, that number was 17 percent.

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Cochran doesn’t know why the percentage of drug arrests in Swain is higher than in surrounding counties. He can surmise, however, why methamphetamine is the number one drug of choice for abusers here. For one, it’s incredibly addictive.

“If you try it one time, you might be able to get off of it. If you try it twice, you’re done,” said Cochran. The sheriff added that a recent study he saw put the recovery rate for meth addicts at a mere 4 percent.

“It’s such an addictive drug that people get on it and they just can’t get off. It just takes control of their body, their mind,” he said.

And meth doesn’t discriminate. Cochran has seen users as young as 13, and of all ages, races, sexes, religions, and education levels.

The effects are far-reaching and extend far past the user. Meth leads to the breakdown of families. Domestic violence is a side effect of the drug, and perhaps the worst toll is on children.

“We see parents and kids all the time. Kids are neglected, kids are abused — they really suffer a detrimental effect from any kind of drug,” Cochran said. “That’s the future of Swain County. We’re eroding our foundation, and if it erodes enough it’s going to crumble.”

Cochran also said the drug is directly linked to breaking and enterings and larcenies.

“These people will steal anything to get a fix,” he said. “What’s to say that somebody wanting a fix won’t come in and kill you to take what he needs to get that fix?”

The sheriff admits he’s stumped as to what the solution is. With only two officers on the county roads at any given time, Cochran doesn’t have the manpower he needs to fight the problem. But it’s more than that, he says.

“Incarcerating them and keeping them in for 70 to 80 months and turning them back on the street is not the answer. There’s going to have to be treatment and education. A lot of these people probably are not going to have a high school diploma — they need some job skills,” Cochran said.



Help for recovering addicts in Swain County is limited. Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health, which oversees mental health and substance abuse care in the western counties, offers addiction treatment programs in Jackson and Haywood counties, but not in Swain.

Smoky Mountain Center uses a therapy known as matrix, which combines structured group meetings three times a week with community-oriented recovery groups, like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.

Even a program one county over can be too far for some residents to travel, explained Rhonda Cox, a Smoky Mountain administrator in charge of community-based clinicians in the western counties.

“Poverty (in Swain) is really significant. Families don’t have a lot of means for transportation, so alternatives even one county over are a real barrier,” Cox said.

Cox said Swain has historically lacked enough adult service providers to meet the needs of addicts. Medicaid service definitions require someone with a special certification in substance abuse to treat these individuals, Cox said, and “that’s very, very limited in our western counties.”

The financial cost of starting a substance abuse treatment program is another hindrance in the county.

“These are expensive programs to get up and going. The no show rate is really high initially, and when you have providers working and getting paid only when someone comes in the office ... it’s balancing those out,” Cox said.

It’s not that Smoky Mental Health doesn’t want to help.

“They really do have a high level of needs. We’re willing and flexible in our funding, and I think people are trying to get their staff trained, but it’s not a quick fix,” said Cox.

Recently, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) secured $70,000 for the county through a federal omnibus appropriations bill that will target the drug problem.

“The fight against methamphetamine is critically important to the safety of our families and our communities. We need to be doing everything in our power on the local, state and federal level to stop the use and sale of this drug. This funding will allow the Swain County Sheriff’s Office to invest in training, equipment, and other resources they need to fight meth,” Shuler said.

Though Cochran doesn’t yet know what he’ll do with the federal money, he vows to keep confronting the problem head on.

“If we close our eyes or bury our head in the sand and say we don’t have a problem, it’s not going to go away. We do have a problem. We’ve got to take whatever steps we can locally, and hopefully we can get more help nationally to combat these problems,” Cochran said.


The younger set

Prescription drug abuse is on the rise with the younger population in Swain County, says Sheriff Curtis Cochran said.

“Morphine is becoming very common, and of course there’s oxycontin, vicodin, and anything that’s got a tranquilizing effect,” he said.

The abuse of prescription medications is more common with teens because they’re easily obtainable — often in the medicine cabinets of parents or grandparents.

The most common reason Cochran hears for abuse of prescription drugs is that kids are looking for something to do.

“Probably 99 percent of them say there is just nothing to do here. But there is — we don’t have the things that Asheville or Chicago’s got, but we do have things for kids to do and we encourage them to get involved,” Cochran said.

Though Cochran says abusers “have a better chance of recovering from prescription meds — they don’t get into the core of the person like meth does,” the sheriff warns they can still be deadly.

Cochran received a report two months ago about a “pill party” where every person in attendance brought five different prescription medications and threw them in a big barrel to mix them up.

“That was their high for the night,” Cochran said. “You mix some of those things, and you’ve got a deadly concoction — especially with alcohol.”

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