North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein traveled to Orange County on Monday, Sept. 19, to discuss the ongoing Opioid epidemic, to highlight Orange County opioid interventions and to emphasize the significance of opioid settlement funds to supporting efforts in the county.
“This is the deadliest drug epidemic in American history,” Stein told the crowd. “In 2020, more than half a million Americans lost their lives to an overdose. It is absolutely heartbreaking.”
Stein and other state attorneys general helped negotiate a historic $26 billion agreement with drug providers that will bring desperately needed relief to communities impacted by opioid abuse. Stein said two misleading claims pushed by drug manufacturers—opioids were the most effective way to treat pain, and they weren’t addictive—contributed to the epidemic.
“It was about greed,” he said.
According to Stein, more than eight people die from a drug overdose every day in North Carolina. As a result, the state has designated 85 percent of its share of settlement funds to counties, who are on the front lines of fighting the epidemic. Orange County is expected to receive $6,799,780 over the next 18 years.
“We recognized this problem is felt at the local level, you all have the resources to attack it at the local level, and we trust you to do a good job,” he said. “We wanted the money to go where it was most needed, and we wanted it to make a difference.”
Orange County Chair Renee Price welcomed Stein to the county. The Attorney General thanked Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene, who served on the 5-5-5 committee organized by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners that negotiated with Stein’s office to determine how the funds should be spent.
Stein requested the meeting to hear firsthand from the county about how it is working to combat the disease. Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department (CJRD), put together a program that featured several county departments.
The CJRD discussed its Lantern Project, which is a Deflection, Diversion, and Reentry program that supports people with histories of substance use who are justice-involved by connecting them to harm reduction and therapeutic supports as soon as possible.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the program came when two residents shared their lived experiences with addiction and the support they received from the Lantern Project. Crystal G. credited the Lantern Project from lifting her out of the throes of addiction.
“Without this program, I would probably be using again,” she said. “Addiction does not discriminate. It will get anybody. My life is turned around because of them. I pray they have the resources they need to keep up the program and better people’s lives.”
Dramatic testimony from Michael A. caused many eyes to well with tears.
“On Nov. 2, 2021, in my darkest hour, the light of the Lantern Project shined into my life,” he said. “I couldn’t get help, and I didn’t know I needed it. This was the lowest point of my life. I was broken to the very core of my soul. The support shown to me … helped me to trust the process of recovery, because it was unknown to me.”
After the initial encounter, it took two more months before Michael reached a turning point on Jan. 14, 2022. He sent a “desperate plea” to Lantern Project staff for help. They transported him to the Freedom House Recovery Center, where he began his journey to recovery.
“They didn’t just drop me off,” he said. “They found me programs that would support me in long-term recovery. I’ve acquired employment. I love every day that I wake up and live now. At one time it wasn’t like that. I owe all this to the Lantern Project. It truly saved my life, to know that someone cared about me when I didn’t care myself, that someone loved me when I didn’t love myself.’
Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart talked about safe string programs and services provided by the Health Department. Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood and representatives from Orange County Emergency Services, including director Kirby Saunders, Community Paramedic Coordinator Landon Weaver and EMS Division Chief Kim Woodward, also discussed ways their agencies respond when they serve individuals suffering from the effects of addiction. This includes ensuring that Narcan kits and harm reduction resources are available and that medication assisted treatment referrals are made and these prescriptions continued should an individual be incarcerated.