Editor’s note: This is the second in a multi-part series where the Border Belt Independent looks at what has changed since The News Reporter’s six-part 2017 series on the opioid crisis and associated mental health issues. Today, Reporter Ivey Schofield looks at how law enforcement officials, an attorney and local support agencies view drugs through the lens of crime.
Drugs in Columbus County are like ants: They’re everywhere, and they bite. At least that’s how Sheriff Jody Greene sees them.
Since taking office in 2018, drug enforcement has become Greene’s top priority. Arrests for drug violations nearly tripled from 2017 to 2020, according to data provided by the sheriff’s office.
“Drugs are the foundation for all that’s bad,” Greene said.
But the pandemic has made everything worse. To prevent viral spread, courts have closed, incarceration facilities have limited intakes, and law enforcement officers have pulled back on patrols. All the while, people stuck at home have continued — or started — to use drugs to avoid their physical and emotional problems.
Drug prices have skyrocketed. Addicted people now have to pay three times the amount they did in 2015 for a gram of heroin, but they do it anyway, not knowing if their product is laced with the more potent and deadlier fentanyl.
Across the state, the rate of unintentional overdose deaths increased by 28% from 2019 to 2020, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. And Columbus County’s rate of 28.8 deaths per 100,000 residents was even worse than the state’s average of 22.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.
“This is nothing to take lightly,” Greene said. “It’s a bad situation.”
As a result, Greene has taken a “boots on the ground” approach to addressing drug crime. He’s focused on open air drug markets, which are hotspots for substance distribution. He’s increased patrols in problem areas like Chadbourn and Tabor City. He’s formed partnerships across state lines. He’s consistently tested his own deputies to make sure they stay clean.
“People have got to realize how bad it is,” Greene said. “At what point does it stop? At what point do the citizens stand up?”
Court sees repenters and frequent fliers
Over the years, criminal defense attorney Butch Pope has watched shoving matches, bloody noses and foul language evolve into multiple gunshot wounds — and they almost always involve drugs.
“It’s a way of life,” Pope said.
That way of life certainly didn’t stop once COVID-19 started spreading throughout the world. “Is drug use in Columbus County getting better? No,” Pope said. “The pandemic, that just exacerbated the thing.”
Since the pandemic closed courtrooms in March, cases have sat on the shelf for almost two years. Some of Pope’s clients have stayed in prison awaiting trial. Other clients got out on bond, but then ended up back in prison after acquiring another drug charge.
“It’s just so easy for some people,” Pope said.
Not all of Pope’s clients, however, are veteran drug dealers. Some are lawyers or physicians who got hooked on pills and desperately need help.
As a result, over the years, Pope has seen local judges become more sympathetic toward people who are addicted to drugs and receive lesser charges. Instead of immediately sentencing addicts to prison for simple possession, judges will suspend sentencing and ask addicts to complete drug classes, attend therapy and perform community service to ultimately dismiss their charges.
“It’s kind of like being on probation,” Pope said. “Some take that as, ‘Thank God,’ and others take that as, ‘I’ll be back.’”
Columbus County also has Teen Court, which gives minors opportunities to work off their charges before they become felonies. “You may have messed up,” said Whiteville Police Chief Ipock. “We’re giving you an option; we’re giving you ways to get that off your record so you can continue doing what you want to do.”
Sheriff Greene, however, argues that a young age can’t excuse all criminal behavior. “We’re going to look at your history. We’re going to look at what brought you here today and help make a better decision than, ‘Oh, he’s just 16,’” he said. “That’s not how it works here.”
That’s why the repeat offenders and distributors that Pope represents don’t get much leniency with judges. “Lawyers have to present reasons why this person should be entitled to some opportunities. It’s harder to argue that when they’re already had a chance,” he said.
Then they become one of Pope’s frequent fliers in the courtroom.
Is prison changing drug criminals?
Recidivism related to drug charges is common in Columbus County, just like everywhere else.
“That’s the only job they know,” said Whiteville Police Chief Ipock. “Why would they want to go work at McDonald’s for $10 an hour when they could stand on a corner and make $600–$700 a day?”
Even incarcerated, their work acquiring and selling drugs doesn’t stop. They’ll hide Suboxone in a letter, have methamphetamine thrown over the prison fence and get correctional officers to bring cocaine inside.
“This is a constant battle, fought daily,” said John Bull, spokesperson of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. “There are no doubts drugs get into prisons despite extensive efforts to keep them out.”
These efforts include searching people who enter the facilities, using canines to sniff out drugs, raising fence heights, digitizing mail and installing motion detectors. But they don’t always work.
“We try to always look for the most innovative ways to catch drug dealers, and they’re looking for the most innovative ways to sell and avoid law enforcement,” Ipock said. “Every time they get arrested, we’re educating the criminals just as much as they are educating us.”
However, not all incarcerated people want to go back to peddling drugs — if they were given the option and support system. Only two facilities in the state, DART Cherry and Black Mountain, have intensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
Pope thinks that, if these programs did exist at Columbus Correctional and Tabor Correctional institutions, his clients would attend. “Most sign up for anything they can for a diversion,” he said.
Due to the pandemic, however, incarcerated people in Goldsboro and Black Mountain haven’t been able to benefit from the programs, which have been cut by two-thirds to curtail viral transmission.
“We have to be selective about who we arrest and bring in,” Sheriff Greene said. “If that runs through our jail, what are we going to do?”
Approximately 70% of newly incarcerated people — or 1,400 a month — need substance abuse treatment, according to Bull of NCDPS. That means that there are not enough beds or resources to provide this service to everyone, even without pandemic restrictions.
Mental health is a factor
As a result, law enforcement officers often have to deal with the mental health aspect of drug crime, even though they haven’t received years of clinical training to adequately address it.
“We’re going to get that person the help they need,” said Whiteville Chief Ipock. “They may not like it, they may not like us for it, but in the end, if they’re getting the help they need, I’ll take it.”
To try to help addicts who are experiencing mental health crises, law enforcement also turns to Columbus Regional Healthcare System — by a person’s choice or by an involuntary commitment order – which Sheriff Greene deals with on a daily basis.
Greene, however, argues that emergency measures like involuntary commitment orders aren’t always effective. “Until they want help, it’s hard to do anything with them,” he said. “It’d be like talking to a door.”
That’s why Ricky Creech, president of Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina, wants the sheriff’s office to have a deputy who is also a licensed social worker.
The Whiteville Police Department recently received a grant to fund social workers to help police officers, but making this a reality has been harder than Ipock first thought. “We understand the value that can bring us in the law enforcement community,” he said. “We just haven’t had the ability to bring anyone on board yet because we haven’t had anybody apply for the job.”
Becoming cognizant of mental health helps law enforcement humanize the people who continue to rack up drug charges. “All people aren’t bad. They just get tied up in these circumstances,” Ipock said.
“I thank the good Lord every day I’m not in that situation,” Greene added.
To adequately address drug crimes, Greene wants more funding. “It’s expensive to investigate,” he said. “People are making millions off of it. You can’t just come in with $20 and think you’re going to upset that.”
For Greene, the dilemma is that he needs to show a high number of drug arrests to receive grants but he needs money to get those arrests.
Columbus County Board of Commissioners Chair Ricky Bullard wants to help the Sheriff’s Office arrest more drug dealers. He says that the county commissioners want to designate to Greene an “undecided” amount of money from the $26 billion settlement between N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and three pharmaceutical distributors of opioids.
Not all community members, however, think that more arrests will solve drug use in Columbus County. Some like Amber Bellamy, director of the DREAM Center in Whiteville, want to focus on mental health resources. “You can lock them up, but are we providing treatment?” she said. “We have to look at what the causes of drug use are.”
Other community members like Vickie Pait of Families First think decriminalization will help. “Arresting somebody for marijuana is just stupid as hell,” she said.
Whiteville Police Chief Ipock disagrees. “We’ve always considered marijuana a gateway drug,” he said. “Just like alcohol, it lowers your inhibitions.”
While defense attorney Pope isn’t opposed to decriminalizing marijuana, he does think Columbus County should consider implementing a drug court, which is a specialized program designed to reduce criminal recidivism due to drug addiction through needs assessments, court-appointed supervisions, incentives and rehabilitation services.
“If the drug problem would go away tomorrow, we’d need a lot fewer lawyers and a lot fewer doctors,” Pope said.
Neighboring Brunswick and Robeson counties have drug courts.
Even without a drug court, Pope believes in expunging misdemeanors like simple possession after some time, even though he did not give a time frame. “It would sure help the workforce to get these nonviolent offenses off their records from 10 years ago, so when they apply for a job it’s not a red flag,” he said.
Pope thinks that one way an individual could prove to the court their good intentions is by speaking to children about their addiction. He worries that his grandchildren see drugs on television and think they’re cool instead of dangerous.
Local schools already participate in the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. The DARE program, however, is expensive for law enforcement agencies to run, which is why Columbus County Schools and Whiteville City Schools contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
Greene acknowledges that the DARE program can’t reach all children, but he hopes to reach at least some. “The decisions we make now, hopefully they’ll be good enough to get us through to the next generation,” he said.
Greene doesn’t want to repeat history. Decades ago, cocaine hit the streets of big cities. The general public ignored the problem. Then, cocaine started spreading — everywhere.
“This is rural North Carolina — this ain’t New York City — and it’s happening here,” Greene said. “Somewhere we’ve all dropped the ball.
“There are going to be some growing pains, but, to take it back, it’s going to take work,” he added. “That’s the only way to take it back.”
The Border Belt Independent (borderbelt.org) is a nonprofit, online newsroom that provides in-depth reporting in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, and Scotland counties, often in collaboration with the six newspapers that serve the region.