Paxton West’s words speak volumes about the stronghold opioid addiction has on users.
“I would beg myself not to use as I was sticking a needle in my arm,” said West, a Statesville native now serving a four-year prison sentence.
How do we deal with the epidemic that has ripped through our community and so many others nationwide?
Over the past several months, the Record & Landmark staff talked to those on the front lines of the crisis. We interviewed deputies, doctors, counselors, addicts, pharmacists and others.
This three-part series examines how we got here and where we’re going.
» SUNDAY: An overview of how the epidemic has affected Iredell.
» TODAY: How addiction happens and how public safety agencies have responded.
» TUESDAY: Local treatment options and where we go from here.
Data in this series comes from the North Carolina Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool (NC DETECT), a state resource created by the N.C. Division of Public Health.
By Jennifer Dandron
Statesville Record & Landmark
Paxton West’s heroin addiction nearly turned deadly while he was visiting Wilmington five years ago.
His pale face went blue. His pulse weakened. His pupils constricted to a pinpoint.
The rhythmic beeps of his heart rate monitor faded into a steady tone as he flatlined in the back of a New Hanover County ambulance.
“Dying was the most painful thing I’ve ever done,” West recalled.
It’s happened to him more than once.
SERVING ONE PURPOSE
Addiction has defined West’s actions for the last decade.
From forging prescriptions to selling stolen goods, every day West has spent addicted to opioids, he’s had one goal: Finding the next fix.
“It has such a grip over every single aspect of your life,” West said. “It does not matter who or what stands in your way to get to that substance to make you feel better. … Every moral went out the window. I had to obtain the dope to make me feel better.”
Last November, just months removed from a 29-month prison sentence, he was convicted of four counts of breaking and entering. He’s now serving four years at Pender Correctional Institute in Burgaw.
“It really sucks being where I am,” he said. “Emotionally, it’s up and down for me right now, but I’m happy to be alive. … Every now and then I feel the urge to use, especially struggling with being in prison. When I get in my head sometimes I think if I could use, I would. I do my best to push that out of my mind, though. I’ve learned as an addict usually my first thought is wrong.”
PRESCRIPTIONS GIVE DANGEROUS DRUGS LEGITIMACY
West traces his addiction to legitimate opioid prescriptions. He was first prescribed low-level painkillers for a sports-related injury.
He got more for the removal of his wisdom teeth in his sophomore year of high school.
Like it is with many users, the addiction progressed.
People tend to view prescription pills as safer than other controlled substances, according to Capt. Bill Hamby with the narcotics unit of the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office.
Users know where pills are made. They know that each pill is exactly the same dosage. They know the side effects.
“I can go buy a rock of cocaine and it may be coke, it may be a macadamia nut,” Hamby said. “I could buy methamphetamine and it could be cocoa powder. I could buy heroin and it might be gum. But … if I’m buying a 20 mg oxycodone or a Percocet and that’s my pill of choice, my drug of choice, I know what that looks like. I’m not as apt to get ripped off. I know what I’m taking. I kind of know the side effects of what I’ve got.”
The opioid epidemic is a source of endless frustration for Hamby and his team.
Hamby has nearly two decades of experience in law enforcement. He’s arrested countless cocaine dealers and shut down his fair share of meth labs.
But opioids, he says, are different. They’re easier to get because they’re prescribed so frequently.
Pills come from doctors, not drug cartels. Pills are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, not homebrewed in a pot.
The truth is, there is a lot about these pills that is legal — and that’s what is so vexing to law enforcement.
In Iredell County last year alone, 9,950,699 opioid pills were prescribed from 155,284.
That’s about 59 pills per Iredell resident.
“This is not a supply-side problem. It is a demand-reduction problem,” internationally recognized addiction psychiatrist Omar Manejwala said during his keynote speech to area prescribers in February. “If you look at the Florida experience, they cracked down on the prescribing of opiates and had a reduction in deaths. Then, Ohio cracked down on the prescribing and had a reduction in prescribing of pills but an increase in overdose deaths. It’s a complex problem.”
LAW ENFORCEMENT DIVIDED ON RESPONSE
In his nine years as a superior court judge, Joe Crosswhite said he has seen an increase in opioid-related crimes each year.
“It’s bad here. It’s bad everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think I could have seen how big of a problem opiates would have become.”
Crimes associated with opioid addiction are clogging the justice system, but local law enforcement agencies are taking different approaches to handling it.
The Iredell County Sheriff’s Office has taken a hard stance on drug abuse, while the Statesville Police Department is working to implement a drug user diversion program.
“Drug dealers and drug houses attract other crime,” Sheriff Darren Campbell said. “Drugs cause people to commit other crimes like larcenies to support their habits. … And that’s why we are so proactive on the drugs. … It just shows being aggressive on the drugs and the dealers helps us stop other crimes and stuff. … Anytime we arrest a drug dealer, that’s a community enrichment program.”
West agrees, in part.
If it weren’t for his drug habit, he says he would never have committed any crimes.
West hasn’t been home for the holidays in six years. By the time he is freed from his second stint in prison, West will have missed eight years of his 11-year-old daughter’s life.
“I don’t think incarceration in any means is a fix for an addict committing crimes,” he said. “We’re not given resources and tools to function and survive. We need treatment and education. We should be making people that are victims of the crimes a part of the recovery process. It needs to be a re-building process for the addict. Incarceration is not going to help.”
The Statesville Police Department applied for a $400,000 grant over a three-year period to manage the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which will allow officers to divert low-level drug offenders to intervention rather than to take them to jail. The offender must go through the program to clear any criminal charges.
LEAD, which is operating in seven states with more exploring the program, has a successful track record, according to program coordinators.
A 2015 study conducted in Seattle “found that LEAD participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment in the program, compared to a control group that went through ‘system as usual’ criminal justice processing,” according to the LEAD National Support Bureau.
It’s unclear when LEAD will go into effect, but West, an advocate of the alternative program, says it won’t be soon enough.
‘MORE PEACEFUL TO DIE’
The back of an ambulance is all too familiar for West.
When EMS administered the life-saving, opioid-effect reversing Naloxone in New Hanover County, West immediately regained consciousnesses, yanked the IV tube from his body and sprang forward, ready to fight the paramedics who saved his life.
“In that instance, I remember being mad for one because the paramedics ruined my high,” West said. “Secondly, I just didn’t want to go on anymore. It would’ve been more peaceful to die than to continue being an addict.”
EMS once again saved his life when a group of friends shoved him out of a car, left for dead next to a Catawba County ambulance outside of the Chuck E. Cheese in Hickory.
He was spared yet another time when a friend dragged his limp body into a blistering cold shower and shook him until he became conscious.
With every injection, the risk of overdosing amplifies, West said. It eventually becomes inevitable.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “From country club to crack house, the only thing addiction wants to do is kill you and it eventually will, if you don’t get help.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Total opioid pills prescribed in Iredell in 2016
Total opioid prescriptions written in Iredell in 2016
Number of Iredell residents who received an opioid prescription in 2016
Source: Iredell County Health Department