News of Tom Jarrell’s death by overdose of heroin and fentanyl tore open the narrative about opioids in the Triad, leaving nothing but loose story threads in its wake.
Jarrell was chief district court judge of Guilford County District Court — a huge job, overseeing the adjudication of family law, juvenile cases, civil cases under $25,000 and non-juried criminal trials for misdemeanors and infractions.
Possession of heroin, in any quantity, is a felony in North Carolina, and as such gets adjudicated in Superior Court.
He was a middle-aged, well-to-do, mainstream white guy with a wife and kids who no doubt have been experiencing traumatic stress after this incident. Our deepest sympathies go out to them.
And among the journalistic set, his reputation was as something of a boy scout: tough, fair, rigorous, thorough.
He did not fit the profile — or, at least, the perception of it.
Of 1,952 opioid deaths in North Carolina in 2017, the latest full data set, 1,677 of them were white. That’s 85.9 percent. Demographics bear some of this weight — the state itself is 70.6 percent white — but not all of it. Conversely, just 192 African Americans overdosed in 2017, 9.8 percent of the total compared to 22 percent of the state population.
And yet, one gets the sense that, had this fate befallen a black judge, the reaction might not have been quite the same.
A faction of Greensboroans who knew the man — as seen on social media threads and newspaper comment sections — don’t believe the narrative as evidenced by the police reports and the state’s chief medical examiner. They cannot see Tom Jarrell as a drug user, let alone a candidate for an OD.
And this is why opioids have become a crisis: We don’t understand, or won’t allow ourselves to understand, who the victims are. Not all junkies are on the street.
Moneyed white guys like Tom Jarrell can fall into heroin use a number of ways. The most common trap is a pain prescription that can morph into heroin use after the scrip runs out, but there are other paths to it. Many of them have the discipline and the means to manage such a habit.
Perhaps further forensics will reveal more evidence in the death of Tom Jarrell that will unburden the minds of his friends and family. But for those watching the opioid crisis unfold from a distance, his apparent heroin use is not so hard to comprehend.