Beyond a ‘war on drugs’ – law enforcement’s modern options in the opioid crisis

While in Washington there is talk of a 'new war of drugs,' at the local level law enforcement is looking past the 'scare tactics' of the past. While our local officials are still fighting trafficking and gang violence, they are increasingly pointing the way to a more progressive approach to the opioid crisis.

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Wilmington Police Department has put considerable efforts into fighting trafficking and dealing of heroin. But that's not at the root of epidemic.(Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Wilmington Police Department has put considerable efforts into fighting trafficking and dealing of heroin. But that’s not at the root of epidemic.(Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Author’s note: This series has explored questions about the opioid epidemic. It has focused on the basics: what are opioids, who are the people using them? Some questions remain: what is at the root of epidemic? Why is this epidemic hitting our area so hard – harder than nearly anywhere else in the nation? What can we do?

Those questions won’t have easy answers. But the picture will be clearer for those who understand the current efforts to address the epidemic. Again, a complicated picture emerges. Every group involved agrees our area is facing a crisis without parallel. Not everyone agrees on what to do about it.

This part of our series will show you the crisis through the eyes of the people fighting it. These are the many front lines against the opioid epidemic. By knowing where these groups stand now, we hope to provide a better sense of where the fight can go next.

Part X – Law enforcement: another ‘war on drugs’ or something new?

First Lady Nancy Reagan speaking at a "Just Say No" Rally in Los Angeles, 1987. (Courtesy the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Nancy Reagan speaking at a “Just Say No” Rally in Los Angeles, 1987. (Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The opioid crisis, despite its complexity, is often painted with a broad brush on the national stage.

Congressman David Rouzer told Port City Daily last month he was in favor of “a war on drugs again in American just like Nancy Reagan did in the 1980s with the ‘Say No to Drugs’ campaign.”

Rouzer’s drug-abstinence policy was echoed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this month. As part of his prepared remarks for a March 15 speech, Sessions called for “criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.” But these issues weren’t treated equally: Sessions glossed over the issue of treatment and instead called for a return to Reagan-era abstinence, saying “[i]n the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction.”

As the nation’s top law-enforcement agent, Sessions sets the tone for the national conversation on drugs. He rejected outright ideas like decriminalization and legalization.

“I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.  Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life,” Sessions’ remarks read.

At the local level, however, a different conversation is going on. Education and prevention is still key, but leading law enforcement agents are quick to say that the “scare tactics” of the D.A.R.E. programs of 1980s are badly outdated. Another difference is the focus on mental health over criminal enforcement.

The war on drugs and beyond

To be clear, there is a war on drugs going on. In Brunswick County, the Sheriff’s Office fights a trafficking war on two fronts, according to Sheriff John W. Ingram V.

“On our northern border with New Hanover County, we’re seeing heroin and other drugs shipped down from Newark and New York. And on our southern border, with Mrytle Beach and South Carolina, that’s a very different and unique situation – we’re dealing with state jurisdictional boundaries. There’s heroin coming up from Atlanta, and quite often we see dealers camped out just miles past the North Carolina border,” Ingram said.

Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram (left) and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon (right). (Photo by Christina Haley)
Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram (left) and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon. (Photo by Christina Haley)

Early in the heroin epidemic, Ingram – along with New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon – formed a task force with the State Bureau of Investigation.

“The goal was to knock down some of those jurisdictional boundaries. As things progressed we had the FBI come to us and ask if we’d be interested in turning our task force into a federal task force. We agreed that was the way to go, it could extend our reach,” Ingram said.

But while Ingram said Brunswick County’s resources are stretched thin fighting drug dealers and traffickers, it’s not the fight he thinks will win the war on opioids.

“We could arrest every single drug dealer in New Hanover County and Brunswick County today, and there would be replacements for each one of them tomorrow,” Ingram said.

It’s a common refrain, but an important one. Local law enforcement agencies know, as Wilmington’s Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham put it, “we all say this, because it is verifiably true, we can’t arrest our ways out of this. It goes way beyond a law enforcement issue.”

What’s beyond law enforcement? The need for mental health and substance abuse treatment. From Ingram’s sprawling county to the tiny beach town of Carolina Beach, law enforcement officials point to mental health as the root of the opioid crisis.

“The defunding of mental health in the 1990s and early 2000s just simply dumped people suffering with mental health issues into our local confinement facilities – into our jails. That’s the real issue we’re dealing with,” Ingram said.

What’s next? Real treatment and real education

Two of the 16 beds in Wilmington for crisis substance abuse and mental health issues. Law enforcement officials said they need more beds, and more affordable long-term treatment.
Two of only 16 beds in Wilmington for crisis substance abuse and mental health issues. Law enforcement officials said they need more beds, and more affordable long-term treatment.

Cunningham, Ingram and Carolina Beach Police Chief Chris Spivey all highlighted the need for more beds in treatment centers for people struggling with addiction. This is especially true in Brunswick County, where transportation is a real issue.

Ingram sees both a lack of facilities and a lack of access, but he made it clear that a deeper issue was the type of treatment offered.

“We need to be providing these people with real treatment,” Ingram said. “Yes, we need funding for detox, but detox on its own does absolutely nothing. Short-term treatment does next to nothing. Those 30-day [programs] aren’t worth the time you spend in them. We need to provide, serious, long-term treatment.”

“I think if we educate the public about what we’re really facing, the support will come.” — Sheriff  John Ingram V.

Despite the collapse of efforts of Republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, state and federal funding for mental health and substance abuse – as well as Medicaid funding that covers detox and treatment services – is still at risk. Treatment, especially long-term treatment for substance abuse, is expensive. As Ingram said, “a lot of people, and let’s be honest about this, just don’t have the money for that kind of treatment.”

So where would the money for treating mental health and substance abuse come from?

“I want to believe in our fellow man, I want to believe that there is good in the world, even though we face evil every day. I think if we educate the public about what we’re really facing, the support will come,” Ingram said.

Children of the 1980s and 1990s will well remember the 'This is your brain on drugs' PSAs. The ads broadly equivocated all drugs, from marijuana to heroin.
Children of the 1980s and 1990s will well remember the ‘This is your brain on drugs’ PSAs. The ads broadly equivocated all drugs, from marijuana to heroin.

Spivey had a similar optimism, citing recent bipartisan efforts to address the crisis.

“Seeing legislators and law enforcement and city officials come together on this, it does give me hope. Which maybe people aren’t used to hearing when this issues comes up. But we’ve got a unified science, we’re on the same page,” Spivey said. “I think things like funding for mental health in the STOP Act and harm reduction bills, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

All of the law enforcement leaders we spoke with the local level agreed with the need to continue the conversation between communities, law enforcement and lawmakers. They also agreed on the need to educate the next generation but, emphatically, not in the “this is your brain on drugs” style of the 1990s. Ingram was the most direct on this point.

“D.A.R.E. programs have changed a lot since the late 80s. We’re not using ‘scare tactics,’ because, for one that just puts people off,” he said. “Our children are intelligent, we’re raising them and teaching them to think intelligently, so they know when someone’s trying to ram an agenda down their throats. Our goal is just to give them as much information as possible, we can’t just give them outdated or one-sided material.”

Next week: As we conclude our series, a look at the cost of the epidemic.

Read more from our opioid series

Part IV – Mental health and opioid abuse

Part V – The power and potential risk of harm reduction

Part VI – Opioid demand, the fear of detox and the path to treatment

Part VII- ‘Killing with kindness’ – where are prescription opioids coming from?

Part VIII – Taking babies from mommies – Opioids’ impact on families

Part IX – ‘Do the right thing,’ local and state government response

Opioids: An appendix for readers