Surry County District Attorney Ricky Bowman seemed pleased to speak to a group assembled for a meeting of Project Lazarus-Surry about the county’s ongoing issues with prescription drugs.
However, part of Bowman’s remarks Thursday night were geared toward persons not there — who have skin in the game in terms of their ability to combat an epidemic accompanied by 24 overdose deaths being reported so far this year in Surry.
“Where are the doctors?” the district attorney said while surveying a meeting room at Northern Hospital of Surry County.
“I know they’re busy,” Bowman added, “but this is their community, too.”
The district attorney further questioned the absence of other segments he believes can make a difference, including the fact that only one drugstore was represented at the meeting (Gates Pharmacy) and one member of the local clergy (Dr. David Sparks).
“Where are the pain clinics?” Bowman said in looking around the room containing about 25 people.
“We should have an auditorium full of people, concerned, ready to fight this.”
Given the magnitude of prescription pill abuse/misuse of painkillers and other medications — evidenced by the 24 overdose deaths as of Monday, more than 400 percent above this point in 2016 — the problem must be attacked on all levels, Bowman said.
This includes the classroom, business meetings and pulpit — “why shouldn’t we use the power of prayer?” he said of the latter.
“If we do not stop our current trajectory, we are set to have at least 120 Surry County people die in 2017,” Project Lazarus-Surry Coordinator Karen Eberdt commented regarding the annual trend as of this week.
Bowman guessed Thursday night that at least half of the caseload in the local court system is a result of the prescription drug problem, which he pointed out afflicts communities nationwide.
“I’ve got one prosecutor in four devoted to drugs,” he said of his overall staff, which doesn’t include break-ins or other crimes that might be linked to narcotics.
The present dilemma mirrors some of the same elements as traditional drug abuse of such substances as crack-cocaine or methamphetamine — with addicts, dealers, crimes and other societal ills resulting.
But the pill problem poses complexities those others don’t, according to the district attorney.
The stereotypical drug dealer might be someone who hangs out on a street corner to make sales, but a different set of dealers is involved with the various medications being abused, he said. “Now it can be a local physician, or it can be Grandma.”
The over-prescribing of pain medications is a major source for the abuse and misuse, along with youngsters raiding their grandparents’ medicine cabinets — which collectively mean huge supplies available.
“It’s not as easy any more to catch the bad guy,” Bowman lamented regarding those dynamics.
That difficulty also encompasses the prosecution of those charged with drug-related crimes.
Bowman said the public expects courts to clean up “the mess” to everyone’s satisfaction, even going so far as locking up drug defendants for long periods — including life. Meanwhile, there is a school of thought that says addicts who are charged need treatment because their issue involves a sickness rather than a moral failure.
The district attorney’s office tries to maintain a balance, the guest speaker said. “We have to weigh who is the true drug dealer and who is the addict.”
By the time an addict reaches the court system, it’s akin to a stage 4 cancer patient going to the hospital, Bowman said.
Sentencing guidelines allow probationary or deferred sentences to be imposed for controlled-substance crimes, which gives such individuals an opportunity to receive treatment. The state Legislature also has approved funding for that in recent times.
Meanwhile, stiffer penalties are now in place for the more hard-core defendants, who can be charged with drug trafficking for opioid quantities as low as five hydrocodone pills of 45 grams. Someone who gives drugs to another, which causes their death, also can be charged with second-degree murder.
“Of course, as with all crimes we’re going to have to be able to prove it, but at least now we’ve got something to work with,” Bowman said.
Project Lazarus praised
The local district attorney, who serves both Surry and Stokes counties, agreed with comments by Surry Sheriff Graham Atkinson at an earlier Project Lazarus meeting. Atkinson had said society can’t arrest its way out of the prescription medication problem, while also comparing it to a “runaway train.”
“It’s become even harder to stop that runaway train,” Bowman said Thursday night.
The good news is that the prescription medication epidemic is being well-publicized in the community through the efforts of Project Lazarus-Surry, he added. “We have at least achieved the goal of awareness.”
Project Lazarus also is actively engaged in local schools to educate young people about pill dangers, and law enforcement agencies are working to reduce the quantities on the street with drop-box and other take-back efforts.
“This group has made a lot of progress,” the district attorney said of Project Lazarus-Surry while encouraging its leadership and members to keep fighting and not get discouraged by factors such as increasing overdose numbers.
Another positive sign relates to new initiatives that are encouraging the medical community to rely on painkilling alternatives other than pills, to reduce the supply. “Now responsible doctors are being more cautious,” Bowman said.
“We’re going to pull out of it, but we have to have the involvement of the entire community,” he said of the problem.
“We all, together as a community, maybe can shut it down.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.