ASHEBORO — If there was any consensus during a meeting about treating opioid addiction, it was that “we’ve got to find common ground.”
When the Randolph County Opioid-Drug Community Collaborative held a public meeting on May 22 at AVS Banquet Centre, two sides formed, primarily about providing clean needles to persons who misuse drugs.
While the debate became heated at times, cooler heads recommended finding ways to work together.
The collaborative is meeting to determine how opioid settlement money from a nationwide lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors will be spent in Randolph County. Darrell Frye, chair of the county commissioners, said the county’s share will be some $17 million paid out over a period of 18 years.
Jennifer Layton, assistant health director for Randolph County, called the May 22 meeting, which focused on “Faith in Harm Reduction.” Panelists were:
— Elizabeth Brewington, manager of Health Programs with the NC Association of County Commissioners.
— Pastor Allen Murray of Faith in Motion.
— Robi Cagle, program coordinator of the Uwharrie Harm Reduction Initiative in Albemarle.
— The Rev. Michelle Mathis of Olive Branch Ministry also spoke by video.
Brewington noted that there are 11 deaths by overdose each day in North Carolina. She said harm reduction methods include Naloxone distribution and a syringe services program. Naloxone administered to an overdose victim restores breathing and has resulted in a 50 percent reduction in overdose deaths. Providing clean needles to persons with substance use disorders prevents the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.
Murray said providing clean needles “gives a person one more chance, one more breath, one more chance at life. It’s not condoning or enabling. They’re going to use anyway. Why not offer a safer way?”
Cagle said she was “on the fence” regarding harm reduction methods until she saw addicts combining drugs with water from ponds or mud puddles. “Now I’m passionate about harm reduction,” she said.
Members of the faith community in the audience took the opposite side, one man asking, “Where was the harm reduction when I see drug deals in my church parking lot?”
Susan Hunt, founder of Keaton’s Place, said there are people using drugs who are working in restaurants. “With the needle exchange, we’re helping keep our families safe,” she said.
Cindy Rogers read a research report done on needle exchanges. She said the results were “inconclusive for HIV and hepatitis. … Addicts will still be dying alone with clean needles. We shouldn’t provide an instrument to use drugs.”
Layton responded by saying, “We have to build a comprehensive system. One part doesn’t solve it. We can support the system in all sorts of ways.”
Another woman in the audience said that “clean needles become dirty. Instead of a designated area for needles, we need an area with ministry to meet once a month to get to the root of it.”
A man who said he spent time in prison for drug crimes said, “A faith-based program helped me. We need to ask, ‘Are we using the funds in the highest and best-use opportunity?’”
Todd Nance, a pastor, told of a prostitute who walked into his church and changed her life. “I don’t think clean needles are the answer. Jesus is the answer.”
To that, Brewiington said, “This is a complex problem with no one answer. Relationships are a start.”
Kara Lamb told of her battle with opioids, beginning when she was on medications after gallbladder surgery. “My life changed with four days on the drug,” she said. “I was asked to leave my church where I was begging for someone to help me.” She said her life didn’t turn around until she received medications and therapy. “What I have is a disease.
“We’ve got to find common ground rather than fighting each other,” Lamb said.
Jeff Joyce of the Randolph County Baptist Association was more conciliatory, saying, “As a pastor, I appreciate the collaborative. I see the problem every day. Some of the verbiage I’m not comfortable with in the faith-based community. There’s got to be some common ground, a God-given solution. Can we come up with a program that uses a faith-based initiative?”
Jasmine Jordan, community outreach manager with Brightview Health, said, “We need to change our verbiage,” noting that “addict” and “alcoholic” have negative connotations. “These are people. If you approach them with love, they will talk to you.”
Cagle also offered a conciliatory tone: “We’re on sides. We’ve got to find common ground. Everybody is correct in what we believe.”
To conclude the meeting, Frye said he had “made a lot of notes to help as we go forward. We have not authorized any use of the money. We’re looking for the best use.
“I’m honored to be part of the process,” he said. “Thank you for your contributions. We’ll continue to work together.”
The next meeting of the collaborative is scheduled for Monday, July 24, at 2 p.m. at the Randolph County Office Building, 725 McDowell Road, Asheboro.