Force Multiplier

A 2-year-old project has enlisted everyone from addiction specialists to hotel clerks in an all-hands approach to fighting Charleston’s ongoing opioid crisis.

The trend lines weren’t good, even well before COVID-19. People were continuing to overdose, hooked on prescription painkillers, illicit fentanyl and other deadly addictive substances. Frustrated first responders kept encountering similar incidents, and it’s gotten even worse with the pandemic.

In her federal courtroom, District Judge Bruce Hendricks was hearing similar stories from participants in the drug diversion program she pioneered in South Carolina. Hendricks’ three-stage BRIDGE Program aims to rehabilitate offenders with a demanding months-long regimen designed to help those seeking treatment find a clean path forward.

But, drug court is only an option for those facing criminal charges. What about the people in the grips of addiction now who may never see handcuffs? Or the people who may not get help in time?

“Opioid use disorder is affecting all walks of life, all ages and stages, races and genders,” Hendricks told the City Paper during a December interview. “It’s a vice grip on people and their families.”

Enter Charleston’s Addiction Crisis Task (ACT) Force.

The premise is simple: Bring agency leaders to the table and create systems to communicate what they’re seeing. Where are more people overdosing? How can we respond?

With Hendricks’ track record and insights from Obama administration Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, now retired to Charleston after a law enforcement career, ACT Force is changing the way local leaders talk about drug addiction, treatment and enforcement.
“You’ve got four different law enforcement agencies, plus the federal government, a number of different treatment programs,” Kerlikowske told the City Paper. “How do they all coordinate?”

Kerlikowske | File photo

Law enforcement officers from Charleston, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Charleston County are participating, along with local treatment providers, in forensic discussions to track and respond to the ever-changing landscape of substance use and addiction in the Lowcountry.

Addiction, treatment continue

Overdose incidents have gone up every year since 2012 in South Carolina, even as public awareness of the addictive nature of opioids and other pain management drugs has become more commonplace.
In 2019, opioids accounted for 86.99% of all 2019 fatal overdose events in Charleston County, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Those trends slowed over 2018 and into 2019. But, early data shows suspected opioid overdoses soared in 2020, up 39% in Charleston County compared to 2019, according to DHEC.

Chanda Funcell has seen first-hand the impact of the pandemic on addiction. As director of the Charleston Center, the county’s office for the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, her staff is on the frontline of helping folks struggling with addiction get treatment they need.

Funcell | Provided

“Prior to COVID, we did not have good numbers,” she said. “And when we first went into lockdown, those numbers did climb up. We continue to monitor it every week and try to pay attention to what’s out there and where we need to get resources out.”

Getting the word out

Hendricks admitted COVID-19 “stopped us in our tracks for a bit.” But even in the pandemic, she said ACT Force has been able to continue to meet and help first responders react quickly.
Key to the shift in response, one North Charleston police officer said, is thinking about substance use disorders as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue.

“We realized a long time ago that this is not a problem that you can arrest your way out of,” said Lt. Matthew Hughes, who was on his way to a suspected overdose as part of the department’s quick response team when he spoke to the City Paper on Monday. “Jail isn’t going to fix a problem like this.”

The collaborative nature of ACT Force has been a “force multiplier,” Hendricks likes to say, and statewide officials agree.

“State and federal public health agencies play important roles in stemming the opioid epidemic, but community-level partnerships such as ACT Force are also a critical part of the solution,” said Emma Kennedy, division director of Injury and Substance Abuse Prevention for DHEC.

Hughes | Provided

“When I go to these [incidents], I’m wearing a police uniform, but I’m here as a government employee,” Huges said. “I’m here to try and help and show that there are options out there. There’s treatment out there.”

Those are options he said he wished he knew about when his older sister died from a heroin overdose.

ACT Force has also enabled Hughes to get naloxone, or Narcan, into the hands of community members who can administer the lifesaving treatment and reverse the impact of an overdose in progress. Anyone who may run into someone with a substance abuse disorder can help.
“A hotel clerk, janitor, fast food window employee … I just give them a quick training class,” he said.

“The more (Narcan) I can get on the street to the people that need it, the better chance we’ve got of actually saving some of these lives,” Hughes said.

“It’s never too late,” Funcell said, urging those who are struggling with addiction or know someone who is to call the Charleston Center helpline, (843) 722-0100.