Second of two parts.
Substance use disorder has increased drastically across the country, but it’s been particularly prevalent here: the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department responded to 11 overdose calls in 2019 and another 21 in 2020, but to more than one per week last year — 58 calls altogether, a 176% year over year jump.
Law enforcement has been on the front lines of tackling the increased use of opioids, but locally, organizations such as Chatham Drug Free and Chatham Recovery are leading a charge to help combat the rise and provide solutions to addiction and overdoses.
Chatham Drug Free was established in the mid-1980s by several community members, including George Gregor-Holt, the current community outreach director for the organization.
It’s is an organization aiming to curb the use of opioids, marijuana, alcohol and other substances among Chatham County’s younger population, and is a part of a “prevention coalition” working with local law enforcement agencies, the county school system and more, including promoting “the safe storage and disposal of medications.”
Chatham Drug Free provides community resources locally, including medication drop-off places at police stations and at several events throughout the county, hosting educational programs and initiatives — including the Safe Homes Pledge, teaching people about the Good Samaritan 911 law and more.
It focuses on reaching school-aged children, and Gregor-Holt is especially concerned with the increasing numbers of high school-aged children getting their hands on counterfeit pills — often laced with fentanyl, an opioid 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
“They’re being sold over the internet, coming from Mexico and China, places overseas, not domestic,” Gregor-Holt told the News + Record. “Unfortunately, we may start to hear about more young people, high school-aged people, who get involved in those kinds of overdose situations.”
While Gregor-Holt hasn’t witnessed an excess number of youngsters in Chatham using drugs, he and the others involved with Chatham Drug Free want to give high school students a space to hang out with friends, without exposure to marijuana, opioids, alcohol or other substances. To that end, the organization hosts a plethora of events for this age group, including Project Graduation, which gives high school seniors a drug- and alcohol-free party to celebrate graduating with their peers.
“Its goal is to keep young people off the street on graduation night because that’s a high-risk night,” Gregor-Holt said.
Chatham Drug Free’s focus is also on preventing substance use disorder before addiction can begin.
“What our message is, it’s a lot easier not to start than to start and quit,” Gregor-Holt said. “I tell young people this all the time — it’s one of the only diseases that, if left untreated, always 100% results in death. It’s a pretty serious illness, and the more we can do to stop people from going down that path, the better success we’ll have in outcomes and people getting better and having productive lives.”
Another organizations working to address substance use disorder and its stigmas — particularly with opioids — is Chatham Recovery, located in Siler City. Chatham Recovery serves as an opioid treatment program providing medication-assisted therapy to help combat symptoms such as drug withdrawal and cravings.
Director Danielle Minges said her clinic uses two weaker opioids — methadone and buprenorphine — to alleviate the symptoms of quitting harsher, more dangerous drugs such as heroin or addictive pain-killers.
“I think what makes medication-assisted treatment different is that it has decades worth of evidence-based treatment and statistics on its efficacy,” Minges said. “The problem with our treatment is that there’s a lot of stigma around being on medication to treat opioid use disorders.”
The clinic provides methadone and buprenorphine to patients, under supervision, from its offices on East 11th Street. Methadone and buprenorphine work by activating the same receptors in the brain as stronger opioids, but it doesn’t create the same euphoric high. This results in a significant reduction of withdrawal symptoms, which can lead to cravings for more dangerous substances, according to Minges.
“We try to liken it to somebody who’s diabetic, and who needs to take insulin to sort of regulate and function normally,” she said. “They don’t feel differently — they feel like their normal selves, and this allows them to get back on their feet, keep their jobs, keep their families, keep their mental health and just allow them to function. It has a similar — not the same — effect as the opioid that they are taking illicitly but allows them to be involved in treatment and appropriate care with a provider.”
Because it uses weaker opioids to treat opioid addiction, some may think Chatham Recovery is enabling addiction. Minges said that’s simply not the case.
“People look at us like we’re our drug dealers, and we’re giving them what they think is cross-addicting them by just giving them a crutch,” she said. “You could look at it that way, but we are oversought by so many regulatory bodies. We’re just doing what we know works for our people.”
Chatham Recovery also offers counseling and therapy services to help address the mental health aspects behind opioid use disorder, ranging from individual sessions to support groups.
Minges said throughout Chatham Recovery’s existence, none of its patients have ever overdosed or died from an overdose — a testament, she said, to the effectiveness of the treatment they offer.
But the medication is pricy; methadone treatments cost $80 a week, while buprenorphine costs $100 a week.
“Our doors are open, there’s no one who can’t be in treatment for the most part, but it is not affordable,” Minges said.
While she and her staff work to negotiate with the pharmaceutical suppliers to get lower prices, Minges blames lack of funding and lack of Medicaid and Medicare expansion from the state for the high cost. Chatham Recovery’s programs are covered by Medicaid and Medicare insurance plans, but Minges says not enough people can access those options N.C.
“More affordability would come from our state legislators and expanding Medicaid so that more people who should be on Medicaid would be approved for Medicaid,” she said.
Minges also said North Carolina legislators allocated $30 million last year to combat opioid use disorder. Her organization only received about $115,000 to help provide treatment to the Siler City and Chatham County community.
“Some other organizations in our area get $2 million to $3 million a year,” Minges said. “We do have some state funds, but that’s limited to a certain number of people who come into our program, so we’re full for that.”
Minges wants the community to understand substance use disorder isn’t something people willingly choose. Rather, it is a disease, and the treatment Chatham Recovery offers has been proven to work.
“Substance use disorders are now — and have been since [the] Obama [administration] — medical illnesses,” she said. “Our treatment has generally worked for our population in keeping them alive and hopefully on the path to being able to be socially functioning adults in our community.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.