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A June 21, 2016, town hall in Marshall discusses the increase in drug overdoses in Madison County. From left are Madison County Sheriff’s Capt. Coy Philips, Madison County EMS paramedic supervisor Mark Snelson, harm-reduction specialist Conner Adams and Heather Sharp of the Madison County Health Department. Michael Gebelein/Carolina Public Press

MARSHALL — There was a time, less than 10 years ago, that Madison County saw only a handful of drug overdoses each year.

That number has steadily increased over the last several years, mirroring state and national trends, and prompting a group of county officials, advocates, law enforcement officers and health care providers to form the Madison Substance Awareness Coalition, with the goal of starting a conversation about prescription drug and heroin abuse.

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That group formed in 2014 with the support of a North Carolina Coalition Initiative grant. In the last year, its members were instrumental in getting the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone into the hands of each law enforcement officer in the county. In 2016, Madison County EMS workers have responded to 19 overdoses, three of which involved heroin, and administered naloxone 10 times. There were 33 overdoses in 2015, seven of which involved heroin, with 23 uses of naloxone.

MSAC hosted the group’s first town hall meeting on Tuesday at the AB-Tech community college campus in Marshall, in an effort to engage community members and begin the process of “changing the attitude toward people addicted to drugs,” according to Madison County Clerk of Court Mark Cody, one of the event’s co-hosts.

Rob McKey, a peer support specialist with Asheville-based RHA Behavioral Health Services, said he was hoping for a “paradigm shift” in the way society treats addicts.

“Some people are looked at as a problem for society,” he said. “The odds (for addicts) are not good, but the odds can change if we start looking at things differently.”

Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation on Monday that opened up access to naloxone by making the drug available to anyone, without a prescription. That ruling, coupled with the state’s 2013 Good Samaritan law, which gave law enforcement access to naloxone and limited criminal penalties for people reporting an overdose, may save lives in Western North Carolina. Mark Snelson, a paramedic supervisor with Madison County EMS, said easier access to naloxone might be dampening the number of overdoses reported in the county because addicts are unlikely to report an overdose where they or someone with them administers naloxone.

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Madison County’s naloxone initiative was inspired, in part, by Conner Adams, president of the Asheville based Steady Collective who also serves as a harm-reduction specialist with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Adams spoke at Tuesday’s meeting about her own journey of addiction and recovery and stressed what she said was the importance of tailoring treatments to the individual addict, rather than an over-reliance on one treatment program or system. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition supplies the naloxone carried by Madison County officers.

Heather Sharp, health promotions coordinator with the Madison County Health Department, spoke to Carolina Public Press about the current prevailing attitude toward overdose deaths, which she hopes conversations like Tuesday’s will start to change.

“In Madison County, we do a such a great job of caring for each other,” she said. “We give people a casserole for everything. But when you have a child die of an overdose, there’s no casserole. It can be a pretty lonely place.”

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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