Posted: Thursday, August 4, 2016 12:15 pm
Patrick Gilbert | Special to the Sentinel
First in a series examining drug abuse and narcotics trafficking in Dare County, the people committed to fighting and treating it, and those who become its victims.
Last January, the Dare County Board of Commissioners held its annual Town Hall Meeting. In many cases, it’s a forum on what matters dearest and nearest to citizens, a litany on taxes, the budget, re-nourishing beaches and, occasionally, complaining about cable service.
But at that meeting, something different happened. Dare County resident Charles Early rose and made an impassioned plea about the issue of drug abuse.
“What can we do as citizens, commissioners, state legislators about the drug problem throughout this county?” he asked. “It affects a lot of families and our kids. We need to find a solution.”
Early may not have known at the time, but he summed up a problem that has plagued Dare County for more than three decades. And his entreaty was one of only a few times when the issue that has been identified as the leading health concern and number one crime problem in the county was discussed in a large public forum.
One of those forums occurred just a few months prior to the Town Hall Meeting, when about a dozen groups working on the problem of substance abuse gathered at Jennette’s Pier. More than 160 citizens took part.
Drugs have been a hidden thread in the Dare County vacation resort fabric for more than 30 years. But it took until 2006 – when community outrage over the opioid epidemic, drug overdoses and the lack of substance abuse treatment options led to a countywide meeting – to create a concerted public demand that something be done.
And only in recent years has the infrastructure been in place to effectively deal with substance abuse. The path started by the community meeting in 2006 ultimately led to PORT/New Horizons, the first fee-for-service treatment and recovery program, which opened in 2009.
One year later, in 2010, newly-elected Dare County Sheriff J.D. “Doug” Doughtie created a countywide narcotics task force to take on drug dealers and loosen the stranglehold of the illegal opioid and heroin trade.
Still, the county seems to always be playing catch up. The reasons are quite startling:
Dare County had a rate of more than 18 deaths per 100,000 residents from unintentional poisonings between 2010 and 2012, according to the state’s Program Evaluation Division. Unintentional poisonings include prescription drugs that have an accepted medical use and a potential for abuse that may lead to physical or psychic dependence. Medication overdoses accounted for 91% of those deaths, making the county’s rate the highest in the eastern part of the state.
From 2010 through 2012, more than 100,000 opioid prescriptions were filled in Dare County, a rate that ranks it among the highest in the state, again according to the Program Evaluation Division.
Approximately 80 percent of the inmates in the Dare County Detention Center are there either on drug charges or other charges that are related to substance abuse, such as burglary or larceny.
The 2013 Health Assessment Report from the Dare County Department of Public Health listed drug abuse as the No. 1 health issue in the county.
Since its inception in 2010, the Dare County Narcotics Task Force has made nearly 500 arrests for various drug charges, according to the Dare County Sheriff’s Office.
The fallout from substance abuse is both direct and indirect, harming both humans and the economy.
In 2008, the North Carolina Institute of Medicine Task Force on Substance Abuse Services reported that “substance abuse carries both direct and indirect costs to society. In addition to the direct costs of prevention, treatment, and recovery support, there are indirect costs associated with motor vehicle accidents, premature death, comorbid health conditions, productivity loss, unemployment, poverty, homelessness and a host of other social problems.”
In that same report, the task force estimated the overall cost of substance abuse on the North Carolina economy at more than $12.4 billion at that time. Further, the report reckoned that communities could save four to five dollars for every dollar spent on substance abuse prevention.
No one has calculated the cost of drug abuse on the Dare County economy. Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen Brown did not respond to Sentinel requests for comment on how substance abuse might affect Dare County’s business and economy.
But, along with the beaches filled with tourists and the bright lights of restaurant marquees and beach-wear stores, lies a shadowy world that many don’t see, others refuse to acknowledge and a dedicated few are working hard to change
Wally Overman, Dare County Commissioner, co-chair of the Dare County Substance Abuse Prevention and Education Task Force, and a member of the Outer Banks Tourism Board, is one of those.
“We’ve got to talk about this thing,” Overman says. “I don’t shy away from the fact that we have a serious problem, and if it makes some people in the county cringe, they need to step up and start helping. They can’t continue to turn away from it, or worry about it affecting tourism or our reputation.”
This week, the Sentinel begins a comprehensive look at drug abuse and the collateral damage that has destroyed individuals, devastated families, and infected communities.
The world of drug abuse is inhabited by hardened criminals, but in many cases ordinary people as well.
This is a story about Sharon, Owen and Summer and how drugs shattered their lives and how they struggle for redemption.
It’s about police officers like Kevin Duprey and Buddy Ruth, whose days are consumed with the dangerous cat-and-mouse game against drug offenders.
It’s about an ex-narcotics agent and his passionate advocacy for drug abuse victims. It’s about those reaching into this dark world of substance abuse and making a difference, like Angela Osmon, Katie Lee and Catisha Bryant.
It’s a story of a newfound political will to support legalizing syringe exchanges for drug addicts, or fund Naloxone kits to prevent overdose deaths.
Most importantly of all, it’s a story of why we should care.
To Michelle Hawbaker, program director at PORT/New Horizons, the answer to that is simple.
“Drug abuse knows no boundaries. It doesn’t discriminate by economic class, gender, age or profession. We have substance abuse victims over sixty years old and under nineteen who are intravenous drug users. We have in recovery teachers, business owners and homeless people; restaurant servers, fisherman and construction workers; physicians and even substance abuse counselors. That’s why we need to care. It’s our community’s problem.”