State Sen. Michael Lazzara has seen more than his share of families crushed by the scourge of fentanyl in his home district of Onslow County.
“In 2021, we lost 11 North Carolinians each and every day from drug overdose,” Lazzara said Tuesday, urging his colleagues to fast-track stiffer penalties against dealers who traffic heroin or fentanyl.
Lazzara was joined by families who had lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic, including Leslie Maynor Locklear of Robeson County.
“To me growing up in Pembroke was like growing up in Mayberry. It was the all-American life where people watched out for each other’s kids, worshiped in church together,” Locklear told lawmakers.
“I instilled these values in my children and ensured that they had the love and support they needed into adulthood. But today, drug addiction has become a great suffering for our small community as it is across the entire state of North Carolina.”
In less than a year, Locklear lost two sons in separate drug and fentanyl related overdoses.
The first lost came in February. Her son Matthew was trying to get clean.
“He had a great job in Raleigh, a girlfriend, and a security team,” Locklear testified. “When he took his final hit of heroin, he had no idea it was laced.”
He was found by city workers in a stairway near NC State University.
Nine months later, Locklear returned home to find her oldest son Ryan cold and unresponsive. He too, had struggled with drug addiction.
“Today, I stand before you as a heartbroken mother who loves both her sons, trying to explain to their sister, my last and remaining child, why this happened to us,” she said.
According to the NC Department of Health and Human Services 4,041 people in North Carolina lost their lives to overdose in 2021. More than 77% of those overdose deaths likely involved fentanyl.
Senate Bill 189 would increase the fine amounts related to trafficking heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil. The bill would consolidate laws related to second-degree murder and death by distribution. It would also create new offenses related to deaths caused by distribution of certain controlled substances.
The measure also establishes a task force for enforcement of fentanyl and heroin drug violations.
Amendments to the bill approved Tuesday would expand the Good Samaritan immunity law in an effort to encourage people call 911.
“We currently have immunity for only certain classes of drugs. We want people to be encouraged to call 9-1-1 no matter what the drug is that the person has overdosed from,” explained Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson, Scotland, Hoke), a primary co-sponsor of the bill.
Another amendment would allow a district attorney who is investigating a case for potential overdose due to death by distribution to request an autopsy from the chief medical examiner’s office and the medical examiner in the county where probable cause exists.
“Currently right now there are a lot of autopsies that aren’t being conducted on some of these overdose deaths and what we’re doing is putting in here language that the medical examiner is to conduct autopsies whenever the attorney believes that death by distribution possibly happened,” Britt said.
“It’s hard to prosecute some of these cases because there’s simply not an autopsy revealing what caused the death and we have spoken to the Department of Health and Human Services about this, and in the last budget we did fund additional resources for additional medical examiners.”
Running out of Narcan, running out of time
Sheriff Charles Blackwood, president of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said fentanyl is much more lethal than other unlawful drugs, and it’s killing North Carolinians in record numbers.
“It’s life threatening to those who misuse it. Life threatening to law enforcement officers and emergency personnel who try to save lives,” said the Orange County sheriff.
“It’s deadly in very small doses. Just two milligrams. Two milligrams is potentially a lethal dose. That’s a few grains of sand.”
And while Narcan has helped prevent thousands of overdose deaths, it’s not the solution.
“We’re running out of Narcan. We’re having to get grants to get Narcan. And that’s absurd. It’s absurd to think that we must do that,” Sheriff Blackwood said.
The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association is advocating for SB 189 this session in hopes that greater penalties will save lives.
‘Those that prey on our loved ones’
Angie Todd of the Onslow County chapter of Families of Addicts urged lawmakers to make this bill a bi-partisan priority. Like Locklear, Todd lost a son to addiction and was devastated when she learned drugs also had a hold on her daughter.
“My daughter owned her own home, paid off her vehicle, worked two jobs and had worked herself into management,” Todd shared. “Mother of two beautiful little boys, and nowhere to go but up. She lost it all within the first year of her active addiction. Thankfully, her life has been spared.”
Todd wants North Carolina families to know this can happen to anyone.
“I learned to what lengths dealers will go in getting these highly addictive substances to our loved ones, whether it’s sliding [it] into other drugs or offering testers at the local gas stations or anywhere that it is easily accessible to people,” she warned.
“We hold our loved ones in addiction accountable for their actions, and we need to have stricter penalties for those that prey on our loved ones in their weakest moments.”
After moving the bill through Senate Judiciary Tuesday, Sen. Lazzara was back with SB 189 in Senate Rules Wednesday morning advocating for stiffer penalties.
“Putting criminals who distribute fentanyl behind bars will help to disrupt the supply of fentanyl and send a clear message that this kind of behavior will be unacceptable,” Lazzara told committee members. “It can and also be used as an opportunity, as a resource, to help those in need, such as addiction treatment break free from their addiction.”
Without question or debate, senators advanced the bill.
For more on fentanyl, read NC Policy Watch’s coverage by Joe Killian.
* A closer look at the mounting toll of fentanyl on the nation’s youth
* Fentanyl in NC: An epidemic within the opioid epidemic
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