Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson did not mince words Thursday when addressing the losing battles often fought against prescription drug abuse.
However, some positive developments did emerge from the event he was attending.
Atkinson was the guest speaker for a meeting of Project Lazarus-Surry, a coalition of local health-care, educational, law enforcement and other professionals seeking to eliminate overdoses and other problems caused by the misuse and abuse of dangerous medications.
It was emphasized during the meeting, held at Surry Community College facilities in Mount Airy, that the problem is two-pronged: dealing with those addicted to painkilling drugs, and trying to educate others — especially youths — not to take the same path.
For his part, Sheriff Atkinson discussed the dilemma faced by the criminal justice system in dealing with the problem from an enforcement standpoint while also recognizing that offenders are addicts needing help.
“Not only am I a lawman, I’m a human being,” Atkinson said regarding a problem that adversely affects innocent families of people who become hooked.
The sheriff said he has “no sympathy” for drug dealers illegally distributing controlled substances including prescription medications, who usually aren’t addicts themselves and deserve to be behind bars.
Yet making arrests is not the ultimate solution.
Atkinson told the group Thursday how he recently met with a local man whose daughter was addicted and was neglecting her children, either leaving them alone or taking them to bad places where she obtained drugs.
The father supplied the sheriff with names of two alleged dealers, but Atkinson advised him that making two arrests would not cure his daughter’s addiction, but finding a way to get inside the user’s head could.
“We’ve proved over and over again we’re not going to arrest ourselves out of the drug issue in the United States,” the sheriff explained during Thursday’s meeting.
“He was mad at first,” the sheriff said of the man’s reaction, which is shared by many others whose loved ones have become addicted and don’t realize the problem isn’t solely due to the substance involved.
More legislation also is not the answer, in the sheriff’s view.
“It’s not as simple as just writing a law,” he said. “I think that’s a piece of it, but it’s only a piece.”
Tougher laws to deal with doctors who over-prescribe or illegally dole out drugs, for example, could prove ineffective.
“Trying to find a doctor that is willing to testify against another doctor is hard to do,” the sheriff said of the expert witnesses such cases would require.
Atkinson said the big need is not law enforcement, but trying to find a way get those who abuse or misuse drugs back to where they can once again lead normal lives.
“It’s the same names over and over and over,” he said of those involved in the problem.
A common thread among them is that they once were productive people with jobs, families and other responsibilities.
“And then they got hurt,” the sheriff said.
Afterward, a neighbor might have suggested taking a painkiller, and the accident victim became addicted. He or she had to use more and more drugs to achieve the same effect, and when such individuals can’t get the substances through legal channels, they might rely on illegal means, such as stealing or buying off the black market.
Often, the symptoms are dealt with and not the problem itself, according to the sheriff, who cited the increased use of naloxone, a prescription medicine police and others use to block the effects of opioids and reverse an overdose.
Family members might be glad that a person is revived and their life spared, but that’s not the whole story.
“The question we have to ask is what are we saving them for,” Atkinson said, “to overdose again?”
There must be a plan in such cases. “That’s the key: what do we do next?” the sheriff said.
“And how do we deal with it as a society?” he added.
“It’s kind of like stopping a runaway train.”
Complicating the situation is a lack of inpatient and other treatment and support resources, which Atkinson blamed on budget cuts and the fact lawmakers don’t see political value in trying to help addicts.
Such folks tend not to have jobs and health insurance, which means they can’t rely on that resource for help.
During a question-and-answer session, the sheriff said he “could count on one hand” those who have been able to make their way back to normalcy.
Usually these successful individuals come from good families and have a strong support system, and are offenders who get arrested only once. They go to prison for a reasonable time, and have friends of relatives on the outside who take care of their family and other responsibilities.
“And when they get out, they have something waiting for them.”
Atkinson knows of only one person who didn’t have such a support system, but still managed to once again become a productive citizen by meeting “the right woman.”
“He is more scared of her than he is the criminal justice system.”
Making a difference
Sheriff Atkinson said the fact treatment resources are so scarce nowadays makes grassroots efforts such as the Project Lazarus coalition important.
And there are signs it is making a difference, particularly in educating youths and others about the dangers of prescription medication abuse and misuse.
Statistics show that so far in 2016, 12 confirmed deaths have occurred (with an additional 10 pending toxicology results) due to opioid overdose.
At this time last year, 23 deaths had been confirmed, with eight pending and two additional cases of people unlikely to recover.
That represents a 33-percent decrease from the same time last year.
The 2016-2017 action plan for Project Lazarus includes:
• Use of “candy vs. medicine” boards to educate children to tell the difference between innocent and harmful substances, such as prescription pills.
• Promoting countywide medication take-backs.
• Distribution of naloxone to the community.
• Teaching students about a “Good Samaritan” law that allows someone to seek emergency assistance for an overdose victim and be protected from prosecution, which one local official says could have reduced deaths by half had it been practiced in all cases.
• Having students sign anti-prescription drug abuse pledges, which include their vow to call 911 for an overdose and to not share medications prescribed to them with others.
• Continuing to work with local hospital emergency departments to develop a joint protocol for prescribing pain medication in order to curtail abuses.
• Youth risk-behavioral surveys to establish additional prevention efforts in schools.
• Parent symposiums or meetings with doctors, law enforcement officials and family members of abuse victims as speakers.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.