Melissa McKnight


Between 1999 and 2017, almost 400,000 people in the United States died from an overdose involving an opioid. Even farther reaching, 48.5 million Americans have used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs such as opioids. Drug overdose is the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S. – more people die of overdoses than car crashes or gun violence.

Americans aren’t living as long as they used to due in large part to the opioid epidemic. Our overall life expectancy has declined each of the last three years.

The opioid epidemic is a North Carolina epidemic. In 2017, almost 2,000 North Carolinians died from a drug overdose involving an opioid. This number has more than doubled in the past decade with five people dying from a drug overdose every day. Over 500,000,000 opioid pills were dispensed to residents and 7,453 residents were rushed to emergency rooms due to overdoses.

We also know the opioid epidemic is a Jackson County epidemic. In 2017, seven Jackson County residents died from an opioid overdose. Over 2,000,000 opioid pills were dispensed to residents and 29 residents were rushed to emergency rooms due to overdoses.


Unintended consequences

When someone misuses drugs, it doesn’t just affect their life. It affects the lives of their families, friends and society as a whole. Addiction and drug use have unintended consequences that contribute to a public health crisis.

The consequences of addiction and drug use often fall to the healthcare system. Studies show that drug use can cause or contribute to more than 70 other medical conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, endocarditis, heart disease, liver or kidney failure, a weakened immune system, trauma and more. Nearly one-third of hospital costs are linked to addiction or drug use.

Addiction and drug use also contribute to mass incarceration, both adult and juvenile. In 2010, 85 percent of the United States prison population were jailed for substance related reasons, according to a study by the Center on Addiction. More than 60 percent of adult inmates and 44 percent of juvenile inmates have a history of a drug or alcohol problem. Unfortunately, rather than investing in prevention or treatment programs, the second largest portion of addiction-related government funding is directed towards the criminal justice system.

Studies show that addiction and drug use negatively affect the education system. This behavior interferes with academic performance, disrupts the learning environment and increases the chances that students will drop out of high school.


North Carolina’s response

In response to the opioid epidemic, North Carolina has passed three laws: the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act, the Synthetic Opioid Control Act, and the Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Enforcement (HOPE) Act.

Each works to reduce the number of people who become addicted to prescription opioids, aid law enforcement authorities to go after fentanyl traffickers and gives law enforcement authorities tools to address the opioid epidemic. Additionally, North Carolina has developed an Opioid Action Plan, with three focus areas of prevention, reducing harm and connection to care.


Jackson County’s response

In April 2018, Jackson County government convened leaders, stakeholders and the community for an Opioid Awareness County Leadership Forum. Attendees listened to speakers from a variety of agencies involved in combating opioids.

From there, the Jackson County Department of Public Health continued to convene its Substance Abuse Action Team. In the past year, the team has promoted the Lock Your Meds campaign, led three Medication Take Back operations with over 75,000 units of medication collected, and installed a medication drop box at the Sheriff’s Office in Cashiers.

Now the Jackson County Department of Public Health has partnered with the Jackson County Community Foundation to implement an Opioid Awareness Campaign during September and October. The campaign starts with the Jackson County Board of Commissioners recognizing September as Opioid Awareness Month. From there, a countywide campaign aimed at increasing awareness on the dangers of opioid misuse will kick off.

The campaign will transition into October with school assemblies and community forums. The Jackson County Department of Public Health will work with the Jackson County Community Foundation and other partners to host meetings throughout the county where residents can learn more about the opioid epidemic, brainstorm ways to address it and develop action steps.

To learn more about Jackson County’s response or how you can get involved, call Janelle Messer, health education supervisor, at 587-8238.

McKnight is deputy health director, Jackson County Department of Public Health