Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram has sent a clear message to heroin dealers in the area: “You’re next.”
The law enforcement agency’s latest operation of the same name is aiming to take down those who distribute the highly addictive, often fatal drug in an effort to tackle what Ingram describes as a regional epidemic.
During a press conference Friday, Ingram displayed the photos of 12 such alleged dealers who have already been charged. Another seven, he said, have warrants for their arrests. In all, he said the sheriff’s office is targeting 80 residents who have already been investigated and identified as dealers.
“If you are involved in dealing heroin in this county, you are next to be arrested and held accountable,” Ingram said. “With dealers, we’re locking every single one of them up, without question.”
Assistant District Attorney Chris Thomas said those convicted of trafficking will receive the minimum prison sentence for the crime–ranging from 70 to 290 months, depending on the amount of heroin they possess–regardless of past criminal records.
The reason for the sudden push, Ingram said, is that heroin use has skyrocketed recently in the county, as it has in Wilmington and surrounding areas. In one weekend in April, Wilmington police responded to 10 heroin overdose calls, more than the total number for all of 2014. Ingram said his department is working with neighboring law enforcement agencies, including Wilmington, to better combat the widespread problem.
“It’s killing people. We’ve had 15 heroin-related deaths in our county this year,” Ingram said.
He said law enforcement knows of instances in which users were “shooting up while driving, going down the aisle of the grocery store, in parking lots.”
“We’ve even found used needles in cemeteries,” he noted.
Beyond getting pushers off the street, Ingram said the real solution is finding treatment for the addicts, who he said will continue to search out other drugs should heroin no longer be as readily accessible.
“Crack cocaine used to be our biggest problem, then it was prescription drugs. Now, it’s shifting to heroin,” he said. “We’re still always faced with that underlying issue. People need help. Very few people are able to break that cycle on their own.”
Brunswick County already has an active drug court that helps addicts who come before a judge find the treatment they need, rather than serve jail time. Earlier this month, the program received a $975,000 federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to further its services.
“With users, it’s not a problem you can arrest away,” Ingram said.
But, he added, there were still few, affordable options for those who need help.
“Unfortunately, everything is privatized, so treatment is very expensive. It creates a revolving door problem in our justice system,” he said.
Ingram called on the community to be watchful and mindful of suspicious activity. He also urged residents to help friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors who have a substance abuse problem, and to contact North Carolina legislators about the need for more state-supported drug treatment centers.
“Turning a blind eye is not helping anybody,” he said. “It’s making everything worse.”
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.