WEST JEFFERSON-OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Fentanyl.
To law enforcement and first responders statewide, these commonly abused prescription painkillers have also become synonymous with death.
Ashe County and Western North Carolina are not immune to their ghastly effects either. In fact, all points west of Charlotte continue to fight their own uphill slug against prescription drug abuse.
In the past year alone, the county has seen the lives of five individuals taken away too soon by prescription drugs.
“That’s not unusual,” said Ashe Sheriff James Williams of the deaths. “We usually have two or three deaths every year.”
But it’s not just Ashe County – much of the High Country has been hit hard by the often overlooked consequences of recreational drug use.
This point became localized and hammered home with the release of a toxicology report this week that two Watauga County college students, both of whom were male, had opiates in their system at the time of their deaths.
An arrest was made in relation to that case, but the true scope of how trafficking affects the rest of the region remains to be seen.
“Most of what happens in Wilkes or Watauga winds up here if it already hasn’t,” said Williams.
A September 2013 study by Insight Human Services reported a regionwide increase in substance abuse deaths. North Carolina Injury and Violence Prevention also reported perhaps an equally startling report from a statewide standpoint.
According to that agency, an epidemic of unintentional poisoning deaths continues to affect North Carolina. Since 1999, the number of these deaths has increased by more than 320 percent, said the organization.
Deaths involving medications such as methadone, oxycodone and hyrdocodone have also increased significantly in North Carolina, according to the report. Males are dying in greater numbers than females (750 versus 428), according to the data from 2014.
It’s not just prescription drugs either.
Recently, the Ashe County Sheriff’s office received the autopsy report of a young woman who was found in the bathtub of her home atop Radio Hill. In that particular case, the woman was inhaling or “huffing” compressed air. The final cause of death was listed as drowning or a form of asphyxiation.
Others pass away within an arm’s length of loved ones, who were completely unaware of the mortal danger that had befallen their friend or family member.
“One thing that we hear pretty consistently when we go out to calls from the other people that are there that they will say, ‘Well, they were just sleeping really sound,” Williams said. “Really, that snoring was the respiration of that person slowing down to the point they are about to die out.”
That death rattle, as it commonly known to law enforcement, is reverberating louder than ever through the hills and hollows of Appalachia.
Dealers have profited this rattle as the resell of prescription drugs has emerged as a lucrative industry for some locally.
“Dealers that know people who have prescriptions for it will offer to buy their pill to resell,” said Williams. “It’s big business for some.”
In many communities, the rise of prescription drugs is only a precursor for black tar heroin. Fortunately, it appears that avenue into Ashe County has been sealed.
But that wasn’t always the case. Williams vividly recalls an operation that snuffed out a local heroin operation on Idlewild Road that also crossed over into Wilkes County. Since then, the presence of heroin has remained relatively low in the county although Williams acknowledges it is still around in some circles.
To help combat the growing trend of abuse, Williams advises residents with prescriptions to keep these drugs under lock and key if necessary.
Williams recalls several instances of perpetrators posing as linemen or crew members from Blue Ridge Electric to gain entry into the homes of unsuspecting residents. Once distracted, one member of the two-man duo will begin pilfering throughout the home, searching for pain pills.
To help combat drug overdoses, Williams said his department also plans to explore funding options that will enable sheriff’s deputies to carry a opioid overdose reversal kit known as Naloxone. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, naloxone, also known as Narcan, can be used to “counteract life-threatening depression of the central nervous system and respiratory system, allowing an overdose victim to breathe normally.”
Deputies in Watauga County began carrying the kits within the past year.
State health officials are also urging legislators to make the reversal medicine available without a prescription so family members or friends of a potential addict can have easy access to the life-saving formula.
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.