The December arrest of 32-year-old Shaunet King is a good example of the difficulty investigators in Harnett County — and pretty much all of North Carolina — face when it comes to fighting the opioid epidemic.

King was caught at the WalMart on N.C. 87 in Cameron (between Sanford and Fayetteville) using a fake prescription pad to obtain opioids — painkillers like Percocet and OxyContin. According to investigators, King allegedly hit up several pharmacies throughout the state with her fraudulent prescriptions. It took a skeptical pharmacist in Cameron to stop her.

Not that cocaine or meth arrests are a walk in the park. But at least those cases usually involved local labs or a local drug ring. Those arrests often came in numbers — you could have a dozen people from a community arrested in a sting.

That’s not the case with opioids.

“It’s more scattered, geographically. It’s all over. You have it in your mobile home parks and in your gated communities. We’re continuously working cases here. It makes up about 60 percent of our total drug cases.”

Related story: The opioid epidemic | Lee and Harnett counties

Lt. Josh Christensen heads the Harnett County Narcotic Division, a group more comfortable in T-shirts and jeans or camouflage pants than your typical Harnett County deputy uniform. The department is hellbent on getting the word out about the opioid and heroin problem — stories have appeared this week in The Sanford Herald (subscription required) and Dunn Daily Record.

“Doctor shopping used to be more prevalent,” Christensen told The Rant. “But doctors are starting to communicate more and use statewide databases [which track patient prescriptions]. So now, you’re starting to see a rise in prescription fraud, usually people coming in from out-of-county. That was the case with this Walmart arrest, and we’re seeing more of it.”

Last year, 47 people died from a drug overdose in Harnett County, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. That figure more than doubled the previous year’s official “poisoning death” toll. Go back to 2000, and only four people in Harnett died from accidental overdose.

Of the Top 20 cities in the U.S. for opioid abuse, North Carolina is home to four of them — Wilmington, Fayetteville, Jacksonville and Hickory, according to a 2016 study by Castlight Health Inc. More than 1,000 North Carolinians die each year from prescription opioid and heroin overdoses.

Christensen says the sheriff’s office is planning public forums — potentially partnering with hospitals and Campbell University’s health science programs — to better educate the public on the county’s opioid problem. He also wants more residents to be aware of the pill drop box located in the lobby of the sheriff’s office, a contribution made by Project Lazarus, a Wilkins County-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting the epidemic and educating the public.

“We just want to be proactive,” he said. “A lot of parents here don’t realize how dangerous these pills are. We’ve talked to parents who’ve admitted leaving a pill bottle with 125 OxyContins in the kitchen next to a box of cereal. High school kids see this, and they bring them to school. One pill, sometimes, is all it takes. We’ve done several interviews with addicts who say their downward spiral started with one pill.”

Staggering Toll

“During the worst year of the HIV/AIDS crisis, 43,000 Americans lost their lives to the virus. In 2015, 52,000 died of a drug overdose. Never in recorded history had narcotics killed so many Americans in a single year; the drug-induced death toll was so staggering, it helped reduce life expectancy in the United States for the first time since 1993.”
— New York Magazine