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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Part Three: The opioid epidemic makes sex-trafficking harder to combat, harder to recover from

The opioid crisis has hit the Wilmington area especially hard. How has that impacted the sex trafficking issue? (Port City Daily photo / FIle)
The opioid crisis has hit the Wilmington area especially hard. How has that impacted the sex trafficking issue? (Port City Daily photo / FIle)

WILMINGTON — The opioid epidemic has complicated and exacerbated the sex trafficking crisis in a number of profound ways: it has increasingly given traffickers a powerful tool to recruit and control victims, it compounds the recovery struggle for survivors, and it taxes the resources of the justice system.

In this installment, we look at the intersection of the opioid crisis and sex trafficking, nationwide and more specifically in the Cape Fear region. (If you want to catch up on this series, you can read Part One here, and Part Two here.)

National health issues

At the national level, the Department of Health and Human Services has recognized both human trafficking and opioid addiction as major public health issues; earlier this year, the department’s Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) held a seminar to discuss the intersection between the two crises.

Katherine Chon, OTIP founding director, addressed several issues, including the increase in reports of traffickers preying on those with substance use issues – even those in recovery.

“Human traffickers are increasingly recruiting in drug rehabilitation facilities and other similar programs because they see the vulnerability when someone is trying to recover from opioid or substance abuse,” Chon said, adding that the children of those struggling with opioid addiction were also at risk.

As North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has stated, sex trafficking is becoming increasingly intertwined with gang activity. Law enforcement has increasingly seen gangs expanding from drug trafficking to sex trafficking, for the cruelest of economic reasons: unlike opioids, people can be sold over and over again.

But the reverse relationship between sex trafficking and the drug trade is often true as well. Chon said there were increasing reports of opioid being used as a “control mechanism to force or coerce [victims] not only into sex trafficking but also drug trafficking.” In essence, with complete control of their victims, sex traffickers can force those victims to participate in the production, transportation, and distribution of drugs – they are disposable pawns who carry much of the risk of the drug trade on behalf of traffickers who reap the illicit reward.

In the Cape Fear region

The CastLight study of opioid abuse in the workplace brought home for many how severe the crisis was in the Wilmington area, ranked number one last year for workplace abuse. (Port City Daily photo / CastLight)
The CastLight study of opioid abuse in the workplace brought home for many how severe the crisis was in the Wilmington area, ranked number one last year for workplace abuse. (Port City Daily photo / CastLight)

Wilmington has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic, which has increased the number of people at risk for trafficking, according to Dawn Ferrer, director of A Safe Place.

“As the opioid epidemic has hit Wilmington, and the drugs are more plentiful, more people are getting addicted, more people are in this vulnerable position, and are then vulnerable to a trafficker,” Ferrer said.

Related: Port City Daily’s complete series on the opioid epidemic 

According to law enforcement, sex trafficking often starts with opioid use.

In the opinion of Detective William Campbell, a New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputy who sits on the FBI trafficking task force, “it starts with [opioid] addiction and then this becomes the way to pursue and get those opioids. In some cases, the trafficker has supplied them.”

For Wilmington Police Department Detective Allison Jahreis, it was also her introduction to the world of human trafficking. Five years ago, Jahreis was working as a vice and narcotics detective when she came across her first trafficking case.

“There was a case – I’m a drug detective – and most of the human trafficking cases involve a victim who is addicted to drugs. A lot of these victims are getting arrested for small drug charges. They start talking about prostitution, and they’ll mention an abusive boyfriend, and it started to raise some red flags,” Jahreis said.

Jahreis wasn’t familiar with sex trafficking at the time and took the case to the District Attorney’s office, who confirmed it was, in fact, a trafficking case.

“It was a new thing, no one in the department was really looking at it,” she said.

She quickly learned a common scenario: often without any income of their own, and desperate to avoid withdrawal, those addicted to opioids are incredibly vulnerable to traffickers. Traffickers manipulate addiction, along with the threat of physical violence, to control victims.

“In this case, there were two women, and there was a man taking clients for prostitution, and he was using them, and holding drugs over their head – and they were afraid for lives, and he was making them have sex for money with different men,” Jahreis said.

As Chon stated, opioids give traffickers a tool more powerful and compelling than physical violence, used to keep victims under control.


Jahreis said she’s never worked a case where the victim wasn’t suffering from substance abuse, but said, however, the victims started using, the substance abuse ultimately becomes about dealing with trauma.

“The common denominator is some kind of trauma – that’s how they end up using heroin, to the numb their [emotional/psychological] pain,” Jahreis said.

Many of the local experts on the opioid epidemic reported similar experiences with those in recovery from addiction — the patients very often dealt with untreated trauma from physical, sexual, or mental abuse with drugs.

As Coastal Horizons Clinical Director Kenny House put it in an interview last year, “when you’re dealing with trauma, you’re in pain — this numbs pain.”

Use, or increased use, of opioids as a coping mechanism – even after a victim is no longer being trafficked is common.

Substance abuse complicates recovery. Victims of sex trafficking who have also been abusing opioids have to face detox and drug treatment on top of everything else.

Recovery from drug addiction is difficult for anyone, but it can be especially hard for those whose lack the support network of family and friends; it’s something those in the court system see all the time.

“It’s the nature of the crime, of sex trafficking, that they’ve become isolated – or been isolated by their trafficker – from their family, their community. Sometimes they don’t have anyone when they come out the other side,” Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan said.

Further, many victims of trafficking have had their finances taken away from them, leaving them with very few treatment options. Currently, there are just 16 detox beds at RHA’s The Harbor facility, the only free detox program in the area. After that, A Safe Place can get survivors into a variety of treatment programs, but for those on their own, the options are not good, Ferrer said.

“There isn’t much, for someone with no resources,” Ferrer said. “There are free programs but they’re few and far between — and the [survivors] have to be accepted. Often there’s a waiting list, and these programs need to make sure the patients are committed to the process. It’s not a good situation.”

Another problem for those in recovery, as many in law enforcement and recovery groups have noted, is that victims of sex trafficking very often have drug-related charges. Jahreis said women frequently have felony records, often larceny and drug-possession charges.

Recent changes to both state law and, more generally, the attitude of police departments mean women are less often charged with these crimes when they are committed under duress – under the control of a trafficker – but only when law enforcement, public defenders, and prosecutors recognize what’s happening.

(Editor’s note: More on this, including training for those in the justice system, at the end of this week, as we look at what’s being done to combat sex trafficking.)

For those with felony records from their time “in the life,” it’s just one more obstacle to re-entering everyday life. According to Ferrer, it’s one of A Safe Place’s main challenges: reaching out to area businesses to see who will look past a criminal record and understand what happened to cause it.


The opioid epidemic, including gang-related cases stemming from distribution battles, has placed an enormous demand on the resources of the justice system. (Port City Daily photo / File)
The opioid epidemic, including gang-related cases stemming from distribution battles, has placed an enormous demand on the resources of the justice system. (Port City Daily photo / File)

The opioid crisis also has a profound impact on the justice system’s ability to address sex trafficking.

District Attorney Jordan and Detective Campbell have both said that, if given 100 officers, they could arrest and prosecute sex trafficking “all day, every day.”

But they don’t have 100 officers. In fact, Campbell is the only local task force officer for a seven-county area around New Hanover.

Jordan described assembling a task force on Monday, only to have it whittled down to nearly nothing by the end of the week.

“The opioid epidemic takes a lot of resources,” Jordan said. “And these [sex trafficking] cases are the hardest – among the hardest – to prosecute. They take time and manpower, and when we have something like the recent rash of shooting, then everyone is working on that.”

A common issue is that victims of sex trafficking often disappear, fleeing the area if and when they can.

“They’re just in the wind, and they sometimes when we do find them, they’ve left the area,” Jordan said, adding the District Attorney’s office has tracked down victims as far away as California, Alaska, and Canada.

Prosecutors have limited resources to bring those victims to New Hanover County to testify, and can’t fly friends or family alongside them. Jordan said prosecutors have worked with a non-profit that sends a counselor along with the victim – an effort that “made all the difference” for the trial – but most of the time options are limited.

Finally, there’s the other side of sex-trafficking: the Johns, those paying for sex with the victims of sex-trafficking.

While a 2013 state law increased penalties for Johns, the opioid crisis has downsized the Wilmington Police Department’s efforts to go after them.

“You know what, we haven’t, we used to do [arrest Johns], but we’ve truthfully been so busy as a unit with the heroin epidemic it’s been kind of back-burnered, we’ve been so inundated with the heroin and the heroin cases that we’ve been focusing on that,” Jahreis said.

Again, the difficulty of sex trafficking cases is part of their losing battle for resources.

“You spend a lot of time and a lot of resources and you end up getting a misdemeanor or nothing happened or it gets dismissed in court — unfortunately, it doesn’t get a lot of attention because there aren’t a lot of resources for that,” Jahreis said.

(Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for a discussion on Johns, the “demand” in the economy of sex trafficking tomorrow.)

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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