Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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County share of opioid settlement may fund drug enforcement alternatives

County stands to net $373K annually from national opioid settlement

Alamance County’s leaders have become increasingly willing to “just say no” to the traditional, hardline approach to drug enforcement as they consider alternative policies to address the scourge of illegal narcotics.

During a recent meeting of Alamance County’s commissioners, a number of county officials openly endorsed proposals such as drug court and the county’s fledgling diversion center as alternatives to the criminal justice system for dealing with nonviolent drug users.

These gentler measures proved all the more welcome thanks to some potential new sources of revenue at the county’s disposal.

Among the latest of these financial windfalls is a national legal settlement that several state attorneys general have brokered with four pharmaceutical giants that allegedly exacerbated the problem of drug addiction by aggressively marketing opioid-based painkillers and downplaying their addictive potential.

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This landmark “opioid case” has its foundations in a successful legal action that was waged in West Virginia nearly two decades ago. This original case gave rise to succession of similar suits across the U.S., which eventually snowballed into a massive class action lawsuit that was assigned to a federal judge in Ohio in 2017.

The prospect of a settlement in this case was already on the horizon when Alamance County signed on as a plaintiff in 2018. Yet, the sheer size of the payoff didn’t become clear until earlier this summer, when a group of state attorneys general, including North Carolina’s Josh Stein, brokered a $26 billion deal with four of the companies named in the class action.

Last month, Stein and his counterparts finalized an agreement with three of the drug makers – AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson – that requires these companies to cough up some $21 billion over 18 years. Meanwhile, a separate agreement with Johnson & Johnson has reaped an additional $5 billion over 9 years on behalf of the suit’s plaintiffs.

The results of this lawsuit were front and center on Monday when Alamance County’s commissioners convened their most recently regularly-scheduled gathering. During this 7 1/2 hour meeting, Alamance County’s attorney Clyde Albright announced that Alamance County’s share of the proposed settlement stands at $10,335,217 over 18 years – or $574,179 a year. Albright conceded that attorneys’ fees will eat up about 35 percent of this sum, which will still leave the county with $373,216.17 a year to spend on the side effects of opioids and similar drugs, which include illegal narcotics like heroin.

Alamance County attorney Clyde Albright.

“We feel that this is the thing to do,” the county attorney added as he urged the commissioners to sign onto the settlement. “About 53 local governments have signed on and others will sign on at their meetings this week…and we’ll spend it on addressing some of the concerns with addiction.”

The commissioners went on to unanimously endorse the proposed settlement at Albright’s behest.

Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood informed the commissioners that they could put the funds from this settlement toward the operations of a “diversion center” that has been in the works for the past several years. The ultimate aim of this center is to provide drug addicts and people with mental health issues with treatment alternatives to jail when they’re picked up by law enforcement for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses. Hagood conceded, however, that it hasn’t been easy to come up with the funds that this program will need to achieve its lofty ambitions.

“We’ve been struggling to take the diversion center from its current number of hours to 24 hours a day,” the county manager told the commissioners on Monday. “We’re going to get half a million dollars a year for 18 years, and that’s a reasonable way to consider using it.”

Among those who urged the commissioners to follow through with their plans for this center was Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson. During Monday’s discussion, Johnson also lobbied in favor of a proposal to set up a drug court in Alamance County in order to push more low-level drug offenders into treatment.

“I can tell you here I am not a liberal when it comes to drug dealers; I would like to lock every one of them up. But there are those individuals who are drawn into the drug world . . . they didn’t want to do what they did but they had to. It was the only way to get their next fix.” – sheriff terry johnson

In either case, Johnson insisted that these non-punitive programs are ultimately better suited to address the problems that send many nonviolent drug addicts to the county’s detention center.

“I can tell you here I am not a liberal when it comes to drug dealers; I would like to lock every one of them up,” the sheriff added in his pitch to the commissioners. “But there are those individuals who are drawn into the drug world…they didn’t want to do what they did but they had to. It was the only way to get their next fix.”

Johnson went on to argue that drug-related offenses account for roughly 75 percent of the inmate populations in Alamance County and other parts of North Carolina. He added that, in Alamance County’s own detention center, the cost of incarcerating an inmate, regardless of the alleged crime, runs to about $77 a day.

“We’d be saving $77 a day or more if there’s medical issues with these inmates,” he added.
Johnson later yielded the floor to two of his deputies, who offered the commissioners some first-hand insights about the challenges that drugs and drug-related offenses present in the field.

Craig Stephens told the commissioners that he has personally witnessed the human toll that drugs can have on addicts as well as their families.

“It’s hard on anyone that has any empathy or compassion at all,” he assured the county’s governing board.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Chris Crain, who oversees the sheriff’s street crime unit, opened up about the shortcomings of the conventional approach to illegal narcotics.

“We’re not fighting a war on drugs because wars end, and this thing’s not ending.  So, we’ve gotta figure out a different way. We’ve been doing this thing the same way for years and it’s just not working. – alamance county’s sheriff’s lieutenant chris crain

“We’re not fighting a war on drugs because wars end, and this thing’s not ending,” he said. “So, we’ve gotta figure out a different way. We’ve been doing this thing the same way for years and it’s just not working.

“We’ve had three more deaths over the past week,” the lieutenant added. “We’ve got some fentanyl that’s starting to come in now, and also some suspected carfentanil – it’s been pressed into pill form, people are taking it and it’s killing people everyday…It’s a very real situation, and this opioid crisis in my opinion is what’s driving it.”

The county’s elected leaders heard another perspective on the drug war’s shortcomings from Burlington resident Michael Graves. The founder of Actively Changing Together, a nonprofit group that strives to assist inmates in Alamance County, Graves said that he knows all too well the cost that the public incurs when it jails low-level drug offenders.

The average stay of a person in Alamance County’s jail is 192 days…Somebody who may get a 30 day sentence is in there for 192 days, and they are not getting the help that they need.”

– michael graves, with nonprofit actively changing together

“I think it’s up to 85 or 90 percent of people who are in Alamance County’s jail because of drugs – directly or indirectly,” Graves said when he addressed the commissioners over the Zoom telecommunications platform. “Our judicial system is broke…The average stay of a person in Alamance County’s jail is 192 days…Somebody who may get a 30 day sentence is in there for 192 days, and they are not getting the help that they need.”

The commissioners also heard a personal account of the human toll wreaked by drug addiction from area resident Penny Fogleman. A one-time employee of the local D.A.’s office, Fogleman acknowledged that her own career has taken a backseat to her ongoing struggle to wrest her 31-year-old daughter from the clutches of a crippling drug addiction.

Penny Fogleman, who related to commissioners the struggle her daughter has faced from her drug addiction.

“My daughter is a heroin addict, living out of strange houses, motels, and out of the streets,” Fogleman acknowledged in her narrative to the commissioners. “My daughter and a lot of others need a tremendous amount of help from the community…I have grown sick and weary of the horrible drug crisis that affects all of us in the community.

“She has been over here in jail since July 21,” the distraught mother added with palpable sense of relief. “A lot of people cringe when they hear me say this, but I am glad that she is in jail…[because] when she’s in jail, she detoxes…[But] we need the beds at the jail not from the petty drug offenders but for the violent offenders that gave my daughter the drugs.”

The testimonials from Graves and Fogleman were reiterated by commissioner Pam Thompson, who credited her own familiarity with drug addiction to her work on behalf of her husband’s law practice, which specializes in criminal defense.

“This is an evil that owns your bones,” Thompson told the rest of the county’s governing board. “I can see it when I go to interview somebody at jail…We need our own place here in Alamance County to take care of our own people.”

The sheriff, meanwhile, proceeded to draw a connection between drug use and the mental health commitments that he said have turned into a growing preoccupation for law enforcement authorities. Johnson ultimately traced this troubling trend to a statewide bid to privatize public mental health services which began in the early ‘00s.

John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, also blamed the state’s privatization gambit for the woeful state of public mental health services in North Carolina.
“Things have gone downhill dramatically since that day,” he added. “We’ve got to go back…the diversion center is just a start.

“We’ve got the money,” Paisley continued. “We’ve got to have the determination and the willingness to spend the money in the right areas.”

The chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners got no pushback from the sheriff when he called for the allocation of funds toward a diversion center.

“We need that in Alamance County,” Johnson went on to plead with the commissioners, “not tomorrow, but today.”


SEE RELATED COVERAGE:

Former potential sites for diversion program ruled out: https://alamancenews.com/boards-discussion-hints-at-collapse-of-countys-original-plans-for-diversion-center/

The problems with drugs, prostitution, and human trafficking along Maple Avenue in Burlington: https://alamancenews.com/law-enforcement-targeting-maple-avenue-corridor-hotels-at-center-of-problems/

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