The opioid epidemic facing North Carolina and the rest of the United States is causing a shift in law enforcement thinking of handling addiction.

Abuse of opioids, which are legally prescribed in many cases, has led to more authorities viewing addiction through a public health lens rather than strictly law enforcement. That was part of the message North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein delivered to local health department officials from across the state who had gathered for an annual conference at the UNC School of Government on Wednesday.

Stein repeated what has become a mantra pushed by officials, including former state attorney general and now Governor Roy Cooper, that “we can not arrest our way out of this problem.”

Stein added that an increase in synthetic drug use has caused concern due to the rate of death for users.

“All these drugs are insanely deadly,” Stein said. “They’re mixed with fentanyl, which is a chemical analog of an opiate. They’re mixed with carfentanil, which is an elephant tranquilizer.

“And the level of toxicity is beyond anything we can imagine. It only takes a grain of salt of fentanyl to kill a person.”

Stein said opioid-specific cases are taking over the resources of local law enforcement causing the shift in thinking on how to tackle the issue.

“As I travel the state, I’m actually very heartened by what I hear from law enforcement,” Stein said. “And that’s both rural and urban. It’s also east and west. It really doesn’t matter.

“There is a recognition because their entire workload is being taken over by opioids.”

Therefore, prevention – Stein said – is key to the opioid battle moving forward.

“We can do that through smarter prescribing by doctors and dentists so people don’t get hooked on those pain killers, by educating young people to avoid risky behaviors.”

Stein said treatment was key for those who are currently dealing with addiction.

“As a society, though, we just haven’t prioritized it enough. Ninety percent of people who are sick with substance abuse disorder got no treatment last year. We would not accept 90 percent with heart disease. I don’t know why we accept it with addiction.”

Stein said the medical community has embraced the fact that doctors need to be reeducated regarding the dangers of opioid prescriptions.

“The medical community realizes that they’ve had about a generation of practitioners who were educated that you could actually treat pain without much risk of addiction,” Stein said. “And that just wasn’t true.”

Future study of the effects of medical marijuana and whether that could be a viable substitute for opioid use, Stein said, would be critical.

“We should absolutely be doing research on medical marijuana to see in what circumstances does it help patients,” Stein said. “And if it helps patients, then that’s something we should look at.”

All of this work, however, has not diminished Stein’s enthusiasm.

“I choose not to be depressed by all the work that needs to happen,” Stein said, “but rather to focus on making progress toward getting that work done.”

Stein said he is hopeful the STOP Act, which passed the North Carolina House unanimously, will move through the Senate to be signed by the governor. The bill proposes several guidelines hoping to curb the opioid issue from several angles.

Photo via Blake Hodge