A community ravaged by opioids looks to heal with settlement funds

Nearly 200 people gathered to share input on how the opioid settlement funds can best be used.

On Tuesday morning, Wake County held its first community meeting on how it will spend its share of a historic $26 billion National Opioid Settlement — more than $35 million over the next 18 years.

But before the crowd of nearly 200 talked about solutions, Megan Pey took them on a guided tour of the dark corners of opioid addiction most North Carolinians are lucky to never to see for themselves.

It began with a childhood in which she felt isolated and out of step with her peers, Peevey told the crowd assembled at the Wake County Commons building. “From a very young age I felt like I didn’t have the tools everyone else seemed to have,” she said.

That feeling led to running away, smoking weed and drinking at an early age to cope and find connection with others. Stints in juvenile detention failed to turn her situation around. She kept turning to harder drugs to escape — until the fateful day she first shot heroin.

“I knew this was something that was going to change everything about my life,” said Peevey, a Raleigh native. “And it was going to kill me.”

It did change everything, making her life unrecognizable but remarkably, she survived.

Megan Peevey shared her own story of opioid addiction. (Photo by Joe Killian)

Peevey struggled with opioid addiction for 10 harrowing years: cycling in and out of jail, hustling, stealing, shooting up in bathrooms at McDonald’s and Walmart. Overdoses. Hospital stays. Tears of sorrow and rage from her family. Living in rundown motels, waking up cold as a corpse to find her skin was turning blue. Reusing old syringes until the needles dulled and broke off in her arms, which were so riddled with infections and abscesses she could barely use them.

One morning her boyfriend went for an early morning drug run and crashed his truck. The gas tank exploded and the fire burned most of the skin off his body. When she saw him in the hospital, she said, she had just one thought: “How am I going to be able to keep using now?”

“This would be a good place to tell you that’s when I quit,” she said. “But I didn’t.”

She had alienated most of her friends and family, she said, but two encounters helped her see a life beyond the next fix.

The first was with someone from the NC Harm Reduction Coalition. They gave her clean syringes and cotton swabs, she said — telling her they weren’t there to judge her, just to be sure she survived to get to the other side of her addiction.

“They treated me like a human being,” she said.

She’d almost forgotten what that was like.

The other was a late-night call to a peer support specialist, who walked her from a Glenwood Avenue motel to a detox clinic.

Peevey has now been sober three years, six months and nine days. She’s reconnected with her family and is now working to help others in recovery and those not quite there yet.

She’s one of the lucky ones, she says — and she knows it. Nearly 200 people died of drug overdoses in Wake County last year and more than 1,000 landed in hospital emergency rooms. Some 2,917 received medication-assisted treatment for addiction and 546 were saved from overdoses by naloxone.

COVID-19, mass shootings and national political chaos may have taken the spotlight in the last few years, but the national opioid epidemic hasn’t gone anywhere.

Peevey said she doesn’t have a ready solution for how the county should use the $35 million it now has to spend on the problem. But everything needs to be considered.

“I don’t know what’s going to work for everyone,” Peevey said. “But I do know we can’t help people if they’re not alive.”

“From a criminal problem to a health situation”

Among the large crowd for Tuesday’s first community meeting were medical professionals, local nonprofit leaders and election officials. The scope of the problem is more apparent than ever, they said.

Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners (Photo by Joe Killian)

“We lost 57,000 people in Vietnam war,” said Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. “Forty-three thousand people died of overdoses in America last year.”

Willie Rowe, a Wake County ABC commission member now running for county sheriff, said the US is just beginning to wake up to addiction as a health issue.

Race and class have a lot to do with that, Rowe suggested.

County figures show white people in Wake are overdosing at higher rates than Black, Latinx, Asian and Native American people. But between 2015 and 2020, the rate of overdoses has increased 223% among Hispanic people and 224% among Black people. For whites, there has been a 74% increase.

During his years working with the Wake County Sheriff’s office, Rowe said, he saw shifting views on drug addiction and many other social ills depending upon who was most affected.

“We saw it with the crack epidemic,” Rowe said. “That was a criminal problem. But now we see with opioids it’s crossed over to other parts of town. Suddenly it moves from a criminal problem to a health situation. People see it as, ‘Well, they’re drug users. They brought it on themselves.’ Until it’s someone they know.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, working groups contemplated several broad areas for tackling the problem:

  • early intervention
  • syringe service programs
  • naloxone distribution
  • evidence-based addiction treatment, including for people who are incarcerated
  • criminal justice diversion programs
  • re-entry programs
  • recovery support services, including housing
  • employment-related services

County staff will conduct an online public survey to determine priorities from among the strategies discussed. The survey will remain open until Aug. 5. The recommendations will be presented to the Wake County Board of Commissioners’ Human Services Committee for consideration at the board’s August meeting.

The board is expected to make final decisions on the settlement funding in September.

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