North Carolina’s attorney general stopped by McDowell on Monday afternoon to discuss the statewide drug epidemic with county law enforcement and social workers.

Attorney General Josh Stein visited Freedom Life Ministries in Marion to take part in the McDowell Health Coalition Substance Abuse Work Group for a roundtable discussion on the county’s efforts to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic. McDowell was one of several counties Stein has visited since taking office in January to address the growing concern in the state.

“Basically what I’m doing is traveling around the state and meeting different leaders in the community to learn from them what different approaches you are taking to combat this crisis,” said Stein. “It’s affecting the entire state, from the coast, the Piedmont, the foothills. I’ve just had a lot of hard meetings in dealing with some sad stories, like the parents of the all-star wrestler who injured his shoulder and got hooked on painkillers, only to go to heroin and die in an overdose, or another dad whose daughter messed around with pills over the weekend and got hooked and stole $80,000 from the family in one year.”

Among Stein’s chief concerns in his opening remarks involved both addressing drug concerns to local and state youth at an early age and law enforcement efforts that not only apprehend drug traffickers and abusers, but also provide help to those facing addiction.

“We have to realize there’s a difference between a trafficker and someone whose crime is their addiction, and if it’s a sickness, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is there a better way to deal with someone other than putting them in jail.’”

Participants in the roundtable included local law enforcement officials like Chief Deputy Ricky Buchanan and Sheriff Dudley Greene of the McDowell Sheriff’s Office, Chief Allen Lawrence of the Marion Police Department, public officials like City Manager Bob Boyette, Freedom Life Ministries Director Danny Hampton, and East and West Marion Community Forum members, among others.

In the hour duration of the discussion, numerous points and perspectives were addressed by participants, including the 300 percent increase in overdoses in McDowell County between January 2016 to May 2017, according to EMS Community Care Paramedic Chad Robinson.

“Even though we’re still having a problem, those numbers have drastically fallen off from overdoses,” said Robinson, “and I contribute that to the solid work of law enforcement; huge road busts that have really made those numbers slow down.”

Speaking on behalf of McDowell County Public Schools, Superintendent Mark Garrett addressed concern about schools finding access points for children to find help before they reach the level of addiction that adults reach.

“The frustrating point on the school system side is how can we can get substance abuse help, and we looked at this previous year, instead of hiring a school counselor, hiring a substance abuse counselor,” said Garrett, who admitted that the plan fell through due to licensing issues. “But we’re making small, incremental steps to collaborate on this issue.”

To follow on Garrett’s student concerns, Lawrence addressed MPD’s and the Sheriff’s Office’s initiative with outgoing fifth graders.

“This is part of our partnership with schools in the city limits, but we are teaching a revived or revamped version of the DARE program to every fifth grader. It’s not ‘Can we find a time to come in?’ It’s part of their curriculum in the city schools, so now they do that every semester before they go to the middle school, and my plan is to teach it to students at the eighth grade level prior to them going to the high school so we can try to reach them there,” said Lawrence.

By the end, Stein praised the roundtable for not only the solutions and concerns they addressed, but for their collaborative effort.

“I’ve been to a number of these filled with people who didn’t know each other,” said Stein, “That is not the case in McDowell County. You guys come together; you work together in trying to deal with this issue.”