Some County Officials Tackle The Opioid Epidemic In Court

Feb 1, 2018


Samantha Morgan has been in an on-and-off relationship with sobriety for the majority of her life. When she was 12, she was homeless and living on the streets of Miami. By the age of 13, she had a $300-a-day cocaine habit.

Things changed when, at 15, she married a 28-year-old man and moved to Colorado. She was sober for 12 years. But when her marriage ended, she moved to North Carolina and found drugs again.

 

“I had some back issues, I had some knee issues but they [doctors] were so quick to hand out those drugs,” said Morgan, who now lives in Randolph County. “Not only was I on methadone, my husband was on methadone, my child was on methadone and we got it all from a doctor.”

 

Randolph County Plans To Sue Pharmaceuticals

 

Morgan’s easy access to prescription drugs is one of the reasons Randolph County is suing the pharmaceutical industry.

 

Randolph County, just south of Greensboro, saw 28 opioid-related deaths in a nine-month period last year. County officials said their emergency services responded to 350 opioid overdoses since January 2017. Those numbers are comparable to the the much larger Charlotte/Mecklenburg County metropolitan area.

It became pretty evident that we had a pretty big problem. - Randolph County Public Health Director Susan Hayes

 

Randolph County Public Health Director Susan Hayes said she was alarmed when she saw those figures.

 

“How many calls, how many overdoses, the number of deaths in our county,” she said. “It became pretty evident that we had a pretty big problem.”

 

The lawsuit hasn’t been filed yet. Greensboro attorneys Paul Coates and Mike Fox couldn’t specify the monetary amount they’re seeking but they said it’d be a substantial amount.

 

County Manager Hal Johnson wants this lawsuit to hold pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors accountable. He said distributors are at fault because they failed—at both a state and federal level— to monitor suspicious orders of large quantities of opioids going into communities.

 

“To recover costs that we've experienced over the past several years because of the national opioid epidemic,” he said.  “But also this terrible impact it's had on our citizens here.”

 

Another reason they’re suing is to keep younger people from experimenting with prescription drugs.

 

“We're talking about stopping what's happened in the past, not allowing it to continue so we can protect future generations in Randolph County,” Johnson said.

 

They're going after big manufacturers and distributors like Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and Teva.

 

Although they aren’t filing as part of a class action lawsuit, Randolph County joins nine other counties and one Indian tribe in the state that have filed or will file lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry.

Samantha Morgan in the kitchen of the Fellowship Home.
Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUNC

Fellowship Home Offers A Path Out of Addiction

 

For Samantha Morgan, recovery has been a long-term process. However, it wasn’t easy when she moved back to North Carolina.

 

“When I got here, I did really well,” she said. “I got a job, I got two jobs. I got my own place, but I fell into the drug scene really quickly.”

 

Morgan now lives at a recovery home called Randolph Fellowship Home. She resides in their women’s facility, The Alpha House.

 

She’s been sober for eight months.

 

Seven women live in the house. Each is responsible for specific chores. They also must either have a job, go to school or volunteer.

 

Morgan was court-ordered to be in the home. She now has a full-time job at K&W Cafeteria and pays $100 a week for rent. She said she’s re-learned how to be a responsible adult.

 

“When I was on the streets I lived on an animalistic level so even though I was raised to do all these things [chores], the drugs took that all away,” she said.

 

One of the main goals at the home is to try to get to the root of why addicts use drugs, according to Randolph Fellowship Home Administrator Lori Brady.

“A lot of times it started as a young child, or it’s a genetic situation,” she said. “Then they don’t deal with it, they cover it up. Then the anger starts then they use it to hides they feel it or they use it to feel.”

 

Samantha Morgan sits on her bed in her room in the Alpha House. It's the women's facility of the recovery home, Randolph Fellowship Home.
Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUNC

Drug Abuse Leads Some To A Life Of Crime

 

Morgan is now 46, a mother of three children and a grandmother of two. Her drug addiction has led down the wrong path numerous times -- she has a rap sheet that includes 17 felonies ranging from breaking and entering to selling drugs. Even though she committed all of her crimes outside of Randolph County, County Manager Hal Johnson said felonies are another reason why the opioid epidemic affects more than just the addict.

 

In the last six months, 96 people were re-arrested 230 times in opioid-related crimes in Randolph County, according to Johnson.

 

“It is a cost to the taxpayer of Randolph County when we have to build new jail facilities for a lot of these recurring inmates that are coming back in,” he said.

 

County Commissioner Stan Haywood said the opioid epidemic, legally, is a “public nuisance.” A public nuisance is defined as an “act or omission that obstructs, damages, or inconveniences the rights of the community.”

 

“When they can't get their opioids they go to methamphetamines when they get to methamphetamines, if they can't get some help at a detox unit, next thing you know they're dead,” he said.

 

Haywood, a trained pharmacist for 50 years, says something needs to be done to interrupt the “opioid tragedy.”

 

“I've seen people destroyed by addicting drugs,” he said. “It makes me feel sad and makes me feel responsible in some ways because I'm part of the system.”

 

County Manager Johnson said the manufacturers and distributors are to blame.

 

“They were telling the pharmacists that these were, for the most part, non-addictive medications that allow people to deal with pain,” he said. “They knew at that time, that that was not the case.”

 

However, that might not work as a reason to sue the industry.

 

Suing The Industry May Prove Harder Than Expected, Some Experts Say

 

Elon Law School professor Catherine Dunham compared the lawsuit to when states where suing the tobacco industry years ago. But according to Dunham, there’s a big difference.

 

“When people are smoking, they're using the product the way it's designed,” she said. “They're doing exactly what the product is for. No one is taking it apart and snorting it. When people [addicts] use an opioid, nobody is using it the way it's prescribed.”

The trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is also trying to tackle the opioid issue. In 2017, they announced new policy recommendations, including “a limit on the supply of opioid medications to 7-days for acute pain with clear exemptions” among others.

 

In a statement, they also mentioned they’re working with the “NIH, the FDA and the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis to establish a public-private partnership that will accelerate the development of non-opioid pain medications and new formulations of medication assisted treatment for addiction recovery.”

 

Randolph County officials expect their lawsuit to take a year or more to handle.