Prosecutor pushes treatment as a solution to heroin scourge

Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Jordan Green (right) chats with Jim Bronnert

A police officer and a prosecutor concur that law enforcement and the courts are limited in what they can do to address High Point’s heroin problem.

Jim Bronnert, a retired custom-car painter and former city council candidate, is part of a cadre of people in High Point grappling with the city’s scourge of heroin.

As president of the Oakview Citizens Council, he organized a presentation by a prevention consultant with Alcohol & Drug Services and a local police officer to educate residents about the facts of heroin addiction in early May. Continuing on the theme, he brought in Assistant District Attorney Jordan Green (not the same person as this reporter) to talk about how the criminal justice system is dealing with the drug on Monday. Bronnert was disappointed in turnout for the event; not counting the presenter, only seven people showed up, but they included High Point City Councilwoman Cynthia Davis and Guilford County School Board member Ed Price.

Both Green and police Officer Robert Burchette acknowledged that the criminal justice system and law enforcement are ill-equipped to deal with the root causes of addiction.

“We’re not really designed to fix an addiction or a mental disease,” Green said. “We’re designed to punish. The only system we have for a medical problem is punishment.”

Burchette agreed.

“How do you punish more than death?” he asked. “We see it time after time: We find them clinically dead, and bring them back with paddles and Narcan. And then they cuss us because we ruined their high.”

Since a tidal wave of heroin overdoses hit High Point in May 2014, the crisis has shown little indication of abating: Burchette informed the group that there have been 21 overdoses in the city since their last meeting. Two, one each in May and June, have been fatal. With 61 overdoses to date this year, the number of overdoses is likely to soon overtake the total for the entire year of 2015 (77) and is on track to surpass the year-end total for 2014 (116).

While the number of overdoses remains high, efforts to save addicts’ lives through a drug called Naloxone — also known by its brand name Narcan — that reverses overdoses seems to be making a difference. The two deaths to date this year compare to a total of six last year and 14 in 2014.

“It’s probably because we’re getting more educated,” Burchette said. “We’re getting Narcan, or Naloxone. The addicts have it. The police are getting it this year. EMS has had it.”

The stats maintained by the High Point Police Department indicate that the largest share of overdoses take place in residences, but police also respond to calls for service in parking lots and convenience stores. A sizable share, roughly 12 percent, occur in roadways and streets — a result, Burchette said, of addicts finding themselves unable to wait to get home and shooting up in transit.

A map shows that overdoses occur in every part of High Point, but with a particularly high concentration on South Main Street between Business 85 and Fairfield Road. The addicts who are overdosing are overwhelmingly white — the police have recorded only one by a black male and none by black females this year — and tend to be between the ages of 21 and 40. More than half of the overdose victims encountered by police are people who live outside of High Point, although Burchette cautioned against the assumption that they’re coming to the city to obtain the drug, reasoning that they might hold down jobs there.

“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question,” Green said. “Two counties over, there’s no heroin, but they have a big meth problem, or crack cocaine. High Point is heroin. It’s bizarre. Do we have a lot of heroin users because we have a big supply of heroin? Or do we have a big supply of heroin because we have a lot of heroin users?”

Green said prosecutors find themselves using the only tool at their disposal to push offenders into treatment, where resources are limited.

“Our only good response from a criminal-justice standpoint is boxing them into treatment,” he said. “‘We’ll give you probation if you accept treatment. If you stop going to treatment, we’re going to put you in jail.’”

The Guilford County court system has a couple programs designed to divert people into treatment: The drug treatment court run by Judge Susan Burch serves long-term addicts while the 90-96 program — named after the statute that enables it — is designed for first-time offenders. In both cases, offenders plead guilty in exchange for agreeing to undergo treatment, and if they successfully complete the program, their charge is wiped clean. Green said the long-term program provides treatments specific to the offender’s particular addiction, while the treatment provided under the 90-96 program is more or less one size fits all.

“We might have 10 or 20 people in High Point in drug treatment court when we have hundreds and hundreds of people who are using drugs,” Green said. “So it’s kind of like putting out a forest fire with a cup of water.

“I feel pretty confident saying that arresting our way out of a drug problem is not going to do it,” Green added. “We knew that back in the ’80s. We need a better system. Maybe that is to legalize or non-criminalize certain types of drugs. That would put drug dealers out of business, and we could tax the revenues from sales. That’s been likened to giving out condoms in a high school. Is that gonna encourage teenagers to go out and have sex? Or are they going to have sex anyway and so we might as well make sure they’re protected?”

While suggesting that the merits of decriminalization are open to debate, Green insisted that prosecutors still have an important role to play.

“I’m pretty far left,” he said. “I think Bernie Sanders has good ideas. I’m a member of the ACLU. But I’m also a prosecutor. I have come to believe that all drug offenses are violent. It breeds violence, and it breeds all kinds of other disasters in your community.”

Drug dealing often comes with other criminal activity, including theft and assault, Green added.

“If there’s a drug house nearby, that’s too close,” he said. “The police love to get tips. You can even report anonymously. If you call CrimeStoppers that information goes directly to the police.”