Featured photo (L-R, back-front): Amy Lamb, Kim Pishdadi, Lori Gray and Deborah Peeden have all lost loved ones in the last few years to fentanyl poisoning. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

On Oct. 21, Thomas Lamb’s dog Ruggie greeted guests in a royal purple East Carolina University collar. Lamb’s mother, Amy, acted as host in a rainbow tie-dyed shirt and multicolored wig. Colorful balloons and streamers adorned the rooms of the house, while in the background, the ECU Pirates played the Charlotte 49ers on the living room TV. His friends had all gathered as well, each wearing a different color of the rainbow. They had come together to celebrate Thomas’ 20th birthday. But to his family and friends, he’s still 18.

Last September, Thomas purchased a pill to help him sleep; he thought it was Xanax. He had been struggling with depression that was keeping him up at night. On Sept. 14, he took the pill and went to bed.

He never woke up.

Test results later found that the pill Thomas purchased had been laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl, an incredibly potent and addictive synthetic opioid. 

While pharmaceutical fentanyl can be prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain, illegally-manufactured fentanyl has been infiltrating street drugs for the last several years, causing a drastic increase in overdose deaths. 

Hundreds of victims in Guilford County like Thomas have died after purchasing different drugs that were laced with fentanyl.

Over the last couple months, Triad City Beat spoke to families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl poisoning. Many of them said that law enforcement officers who responded to the scene and handled their cases were rude or uncommunicative, while others felt like they did a good job. But none of them feel like they got justice for the people they lost.

L-R, back-front: Amy Lamb, Kim Pishdadi, Lori Gray and Deborah Peeden have all lost loved ones in the last few years to fentanyl poisoning. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

These families hoped that a 2019 death-by-distribution law, which was updated this December, would be used by law enforcement to put those responsible for selling tainted drugs behind bars.

Instead, the dealers weren’t tracked down, and any evidence that was collected was deemed insufficient for charges.

Still, others who work in the harm-reduction space say that the death-by-distribution and other trafficking laws disproportionately harm communities of color, continuing the decades of racist policing started with the so-called “war on drugs,” coined by the Nixon administration in the ’70s. All the while, the families left behind continue to seek solutions in an effort to prevent the same heartbreaking losses they have had to endure.

“He was my world, everything; I miss him so bad,” said Lamb. Thomas was her only child. 

‘The new Russian roulette’

According to the North Carolina Division of Public Health, Guilford County recorded 188 fentanyl poisonings in 2021; the previous year, the county clocked 113. 

In 2021, Mecklenburg County also saw 188 fentanyl poisonings while Wake County counted 177. For context, Guilford County has a population of 541,299 per the 2020 census, less than half of each of the populations of Mecklenburg County — 1.12 million — and Wake County — 1.13 million.

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The numbers are climbing statewide, too.

In 2020, 2,398 people died from fentanyl poisoning in NC. The next year, that number jumped to 3,117. In 2022, the state saw 3,354 fentanyl-positive deaths. Between January and August of this year, there have been 2,250 fentanyl-positive deaths in North Carolina.

“All of his friends will tell you, I was concerned about fentanyl,” Lamb said. “I would talk with him about it, and it didn’t do any good.”

The increase in fentanyl is largely due to the fact that the drug is much cheaper to manufacture than other drugs. It is cut into pills or powder drugs such as cocaine and heroin, then passed off as the real deal. These pills are often stamped to look just like name-brand drugs — pills that “look just like a Xanax that you might steal from your grandma’s medicine cabinet,” said Sandy Harrington, Thomas’ aunt.

Thomas Lamb was 18 years old when he took a pill that he thought was Xanax for depression. It was laced with a deadly dose of fentanyl. (courtesy photo)

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, laboratory testing indicates that seven out of every 10 pills they seize contain a lethal dose of fentanyl. 

The lethal dose of fentanyl is much lower than other drugs — while the lethal dose of heroin is 100 mg, fentanyl’s is around 2 mg.

The DEA’s website notes that it has seized a record 74.5 million fentanyl pills to date this year, exceeding last year’s total of 58 million pills.

Kids are playing “the new Russian roulette,” Harrington said.

“Back when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we knew who grew the marijuana,” she said. “And now, you don’t know.”

Even if you know the person you’re getting it from, she said, they might not know that their pills have fentanyl in them.

“You don’t know which one is which,” Lamb added. “You’re just playing roulette every single time you take a pill, and you don’t know where that pill came from, and that person probably bought it from somebody else who bought it from somebody else. They don’t know what they’re peddling, really.”

The loss of her nephew was “devastating,” Harrington said.

But the subsequent lack of justice pains Harrington just as much. 

“The lieutenant that was assigned our case, she did almost zero about it,” she said. “She just basically said, ‘It happens, he shouldn’t have taken the pill.’

“There’s other kids in this neighborhood that the same thing has happened to,” she continued. “And the police officer said it’s too big for them to investigate it any further. Nobody tried to figure out where he got it from, trace it down, nothing like that.”

What is law enforcement doing, or not doing, about overdose deaths?

When there’s an overdose death in Guilford County, patrol deputies with the sheriff’s department respond to the scene. They create the initial report and then the case is assigned to a major crimes investigations unit detective according to Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s Communications Specialist Bria Evans. Then, the assigned detective works the investigation in coordination with the Medical Examiner’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office.

Evans said that all fentanyl cases are worked with the “same seriousness and diligence as any other major crimes case.”

The Greensboro Police Department’s Public Information Coordinator Patrick DeSota echoed a similar sentiment. He said that the department “investigate[s] deaths and follow[s] up on evidence that is discovered.”

The Greensboro police headquarters (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

But families affected by the fentanyl crisis told TCB that the dealers involved in the deaths of their loved ones haven’t been arrested or charged with any crimes. And that has to do with which statutes law enforcement officers use to arrest perpetrators and whether district attorneys have enough evidence to prosecute those involved.

After years of increasing fentanyl deaths, in 2019, state lawmakers passed a death-by-distribution law. The law stated that a person is guilty of death by distribution if all of the following requirements are met: the person unlawfully sold at least one controlled substance such as an opioid, cocaine or methamphetamine, that the substance they sold caused the death of the user and that the person who sold the drug did not act with malice. The crime was a Class C felony, which usually results in a 5-12 year prison sentence with a maximum sentence of 19 years.

On Dec. 1, the law was updated to remove the requirement that the defendant did not act with malice; the sale of the drug isn’t required for charges either. Under the new law, perpetrators can be charged with a Class C felony if they simply distribute a drug such as methamphetamine, fentanyl or cocaine that leads to a victim’s death. Additionally, if the defendant did act with malice, the offense would be a Class B2 felony.

But even with the updated death-by-distribution law, law enforcement officials say that using laws related to trafficking are easier to use. These laws tend to be broader, and in NC, cover individuals who manufacture, sell, deliver or possess controlled substances.

State law notes that those caught with at least four grams of heroin, opioid, opiate or opium qualify for felony charges with a minimum sentence of 70 months in prison. Higher amounts can lead to a maximum sentence of more than 20 years.

According to Captain M. Holder with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, heroin usage, along with fentanyl, has become much more prevalent in Guilford County. He said that it’s really common for cocaine to be cut with fentanyl, too. When drug usage changes, law enforcement and drug dealers alike have to adjust their strategies.

“The dealers adjust, so they go where the best profit margins are,” Holder explained. “So sometimes your cocaine will be replaced by fentanyl or some of your cocaine dealers will become fentanyl dealers. We just go where the best information is. We don’t specifically say we’re only making fentanyl cases or only making cocaine cases. We try to make the cases that have the best impact on our county.”

One of the reasons why Guilford County is “a hub” for drug activity is because of its major highways, Holder said, and that they “have to work that aggressively.”

Sometimes they’re catching several pounds of fentanyl and heroin at a time, he said.

“We’re trying to cut that off at the top before it makes it down,” said Holder.

And that strategy may be working. 

On Nov. 20, 25 people were charged with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl — along with methamphetamine and cocaine hydrochloride, or powdered cocaine — in Guilford and other counties. The indictment followed a two-year investigation. According to a press release from the US Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of North Carolina, individual defendants face penalties ranging from 5 years to life sentences for narcotics conspiracy, distribution and possession with intent to distribute, depending on the drug amounts involved in the offenses.

“Often we reach amounts that carry minimum mandatory sentences in prison,” Holder explained during a Nov. 9 community town hall.

During the community meeting, Holder delved into the death-by-distribution law and explained why law enforcement hasn’t used it in the past. In order to substantiate a death-by-distribution charge, law enforcement has to prove that the drug that killed a person came from a specific individual. And that part is difficult to prove. But proving drug trafficking? Not so much.

“We don’t know if we can substantiate a death by distribution [charge], but we’re pretty confident we can make a narcotics case on this suspect,” Holder said. “I don’t know that it’s fair for me to say that it is replacing death by distribution [charges], but it might be — with the resources that we have — the best way that we can approach that case.”

By using this strategy, sometimes they can catch a drug trafficker “literally as soon as they leave their car,” he said.

The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office backs Holder’s assertion that the death-by-distribution law is being used sparingly. According to the office, only one person has ever been charged with death by distribution. The victim’s official cause of death was acute fentanyl toxicity.

When asked about the law, Evans with the sheriff’s office said that cases would “continue to be investigated in the same manner” even with the updated law.

DeSota, with the Greensboro police department, echoed the sheriff’s office’s stance. He said that “as of now there are no planned changes” to how GPD operates in terms of drug overdose cases. When asked whether GPD had ever charged anyone with death by distribution, DeSota replied, “Not that I am aware.”

Deborah Peeden lost her granddaughter Ashley in October 2021. She was 23 years old, and she thought she was doing cocaine with friends. The Greensboro Police Department handled Ashley’s case.

Deborah Peeden lost her granddaughter Ashley in October 2021. She was 23 years old, and she thought she was doing cocaine with friends. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

“Ashley’s case was never really investigated,” Peeden told TCB

Many details of the case concern her. 

“She was left in an apartment for over 13 hours. The person whose apartment she was in left her unresponsive on the floor, took her car, was gone for a few hours, and then when they came back they waited another two hours before calling EMS.”

They “could not give the police department a reasonable explanation as to why they waited,” she said.

Peeden’s mission is to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families. She’s now part of Forgotten Victims of the Piedmont Triad, an organization that raises awareness about fentanyl.

Peeden said that police refused to take Ashley’s phone as evidence and that they told her she could hire a private investigator to try to get into it.

“I just found them to be very cold and very callous,” she said.

Peeden said she went for a month thinking that detectives were investigating Ashley’s case. Later, she found out that the case was listed as inactive only four days after her death. As soon as the police department got her toxicology report and amended death certificate, they closed the case, she said.

Peeden said she was told by the police department that this was because Ashley “willingly ingested an illicit substance.”

Peeden is disturbed and frustrated by how some people — particularly those in law enforcement — view fentanyl deaths. 

“If you and I went out and we had a drink, and I slipped a little bit of arsenic in your wine, you willingly ingested that wine. Did you overdose or were you poisoned?” she asked.

Still, Peeden understands that a death-by-distribution charge takes a lot of time to get right.

“It’s a long process to investigate,” Peeden acknowledged. “It’s a long process to charge. It’s a long process before they get to court.”

Even so, Peeden hopes law enforcement takes these poisoning deaths seriously.

“Yes, they are difficult to prosecute, but you can’t prosecute when you don’t even investigate to begin with,” she said.

Even with the updated law, there has to be a willingness from the district attorney’s office to prosecute the charges, said Holder, with the sheriff’s office.

What roles does the district attorney play in this?

The district attorney decides who to prosecute — who to charge with a crime and which charges to dismiss, what crime to charge them with, and whether to divert the case to a program, such as drug treatment or education, so the person can avoid a criminal conviction.

Avery Crump has been Guilford County district attorney since January 2019. In an email to TCB, Crump shifted the responsibility back to law enforcement, writing that her office will prosecute these cases “if law enforcement makes an arrest and provides enough evidence to prosecute.”

Andy Wiker died on Dec. 30, 2019 after he bought what he thought was heroin; it ended up being laced with fentanyl. (courtesy photo)

But Toni Wiker said that district attorneys need to be more aggressive.

On Dec. 30, 2019, Wiker lost her son, Andy, after he bought what he thought was heroin; it ended up being laced with fentanyl.

Andy was a musician and an artist from Jamestown who “had lots of people that loved and supported him,” including his long-time girlfriend, Wiker said.

The death by distribution law had just gone into effect that December when Andy died. 

Wiker said that the sheriff’s deputies took Andy’s case seriously in 2019.

“The house was packed full of deputies, state police, High Point police, ambulance — there had to be 40 people in here,” Wiker said. “They did a very thorough job.” 

According to Wiker, she said that law enforcement found text messages between her son and the dealer on his phone and that they had a picture of the dealer’s car at the car wash where Andy met him.

“That seems pretty slam-dunk,” she said. “Just saying.”

But Andy’s dealer was never charged with death by distribution.

“They say that it’s hard to prove, but they found the heroin with fentanyl on my son,” Wiker said. 

Wiker asserts that the person who sold her son the fentanyl is a known heroin dealer and that if they would have just arrested the dealer for selling heroin, that would’ve been good enough for her.

“I mean, who else has he killed since 2019?” she said.

Wiker feels that the problem is rooted in the district attorney’s office.

“I would hope that these cases will come to be prosecuted moving forward because there is a law and it’s not being enforced,” Wiker said. “I don’t think it’s the deputies’ fault. At least I don’t believe it was in my case. You can investigate and investigate and get evidence and if the DA chooses to not move forward, it’s over.”

Kim Pishdadi, Deborah Peeden and Laurel Van Deusen stand outside of the Guilford County courthouse. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Still, there are a lot of moving parts within the system, and when one of them slows down, so do the rest. One cog in the wheel is the Medical Examiner’s Office, which is in charge of determining the cause of death. Law enforcement can’t file charges until they have evidence that the illegal drugs killed someone. According to reporting in August by the Charlotte Observer, it’s normal for it to take five or more months before that proof arrives. While police and prosecutors wait to file charges, dealers can stay on the street and continue to sell potentially dangerous drugs until their time comes — if it ever does.

Some families in Greensboro have had to wait even longer than five months.

Lori Gray’s daughter, Stoney, loved to sing. She was living near UNCG when she died on Oct. 12, 2022. She was 29 and suffering from addiction. 

Gray and Stoney’s sister, Nancy Hunnemann, said that it took around nine months to get confirmation that it was fentanyl that killed Stoney. Gray said that she would call the medical examiner’s office in Raleigh weekly to try to get information.

Lori Gray’s daughter, Stoney, loved to sing. She was living near UNCG when she died on Oct. 12, 2022. She was 29 and suffering from addiction. (courtesy photo)

“They don’t have enough help,” Hunnemann said.

It’s not just Guilford County and Greensboro law enforcement that is struggling to manage the crisis.

Kim Pishdadi doesn’t feel like officers with the Archdale Police Department in Randolph County fulfilled their duty after her 35-year-old son Joshua Peele died on March 27, 2021, leaving behind two children — Caleb, 16, and Alexandrea, 15. 

Pishdadi is now raising both of her grandchildren.

Joshua loved being outdoors — hunting, fishing. NASCAR racing, and football, too.

“Deer hunting, that was an every Saturday morning ritual during deer season,” Pishdadi said. “That was him and his dad’s thing.”

Pishdadi said that the detectives were unable to get into Joshua’s cell phones. But one day, his son Caleb cracked the code.

Pishdadi said she “started looking through his phone and was seeing all sorts of messages between [Joshua] and the dealer.”

She said that messages on Joshua’s phone to his drug dealer clearly show her son asking for meth, and there’s a CashApp transaction between him and the dealer for $250.

“The guy delivers it to the hotel room where my son was staying, and a couple of hours later my son’s dead,” she said.

Pishdadi called the detective back to tell them what she’d discovered on the cell phone.

Kim Pishdadi lost her 35-year-old son Joshua Peele on March 27, 2021, after he overdosed on meth laced with fentanyl. He left behind two children. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

“There was probable cause to charge this guy,” she said.

Joshua had only 2.2 mg of methamphetamine in his system, Pishdadi said, along with enough fentanyl to kill more than 30 people. The person who was taking the drugs with Joshua ran off with them after they called 911.

Because the drugs were never found in the room, this prevented any charges from sticking and the case didn’t move forward.

Parents like Pishdadi and Wiker have found messages on their children’s phones to drug dealers, only to be told that evidence such as transactions or confirmation of purchase isn’t enough.

According to reporting by Carolina Public Press, Durham County Assistant District Attorney Daniel Spiegel told a mother that there was a slim chance of prosecuting the dealer for death by distribution, saying that a text message was not enough evidence.

“It can be difficult to prove a direct link between the alleged seller, the drugs and the victim’s death,” Sarah Willets, the communications specialist for Spiegel’s office, explained in a statement to CPP

Particularly in jurisdictions such as Durham that experience significant gun violence and larger-scale drug activity, prosecutors need to devote their limited resources to cases that will have the broadest impact on the community, Willets said.

The dealers who sold fentanyl-laced pills to Andy and Joshua are still out there, the parents say.

“I beg any child out here, any teenager, I beg them not to start,” Pishdadi said. “Don’t experiment. It is a vicious demon; not only to themself, but to their family. If there’s anything I could say to anyone out there: just don’t experiment with anything, you cannot trust anyone, it is not worth the risk.” 

Wiker said that since her son died, five of his friends have died from fentanyl poisoning as well.

“All the little boys that ran through my house and played video games and patted the dog and had sleepovers; they’re all gone,” she said.

One of Andy’s friends lost his father to fentanyl poisoning, and was so stressed out that he couldn’t eat or sleep. 

Andy’s friend bought a Xanax so that he could sleep, according to Wiker. It turned out to be pure fentanyl.

“It’s changed my life; it’s devastated me,” Wiker said. “I’m not the same person. I can barely remember who that person was. But it’s like a cloud that just fills my life and sometimes, even now almost four years later, the reality just strikes out of nowhere and takes my breath away. It hurts my heart. I mean, I still can’t really believe that my baby’s gone forever.”

While people “shouldn’t be doing street drugs,” Wiker said, “they’re still somebody’s child; every addict is somebody’s child.”

Jodi Lorenzo, a family friend whose son was friends with Thomas, wishes that first responders would interact more tenderly toward families who have just lost a loved one.

“Each time, you have to remember that someone’s going through it for the first time,” she said.

Jimmy Barber, Thomas’s cousin, said he feels “extremely” angry about what happened to Thomas.

“That’s a murder, and the fact that they don’t investigate it harder than what they do and try harder than what they do, it’s a shame,” he said.

“The amount my life has changed because of what happened, I can’t express,” he added. “I’m not the same person I was. I don’t have the same love for life that I did. I felt like he got cheated. It’s one of those things that I’ll never really get over, but you just kind of learn to cope with it. You just kind of gotta understand sometimes that it’s alright to be sad.”

‘She felt helpless’

Thomas Lamb’s dog Ruggie was with him the morning that he died, his mother said. She thought it was strange that when she called for the dog, he didn’t respond.

“It was because he didn’t want to leave him,” Lamb said. “He hasn’t left my side, pretty much since then.” 

Lamb’s voice caught as she hugged Ruggie, who she says still looks for Thomas.

“It hurts the animals too,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.

Amy Lamb, right, lost her son Thomas when he was 18 years old after he took a pill that he thought was Xanax for depression. It was laced with a deadly dose of fentanyl. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Thomas was two days away from having a psychological evaluation for depression. He had been treated for depression during the pandemic and had been prescribed some medication for it.

“I guess it just wasn’t enough and he reached out for something else to numb the pain,” Lamb said.

According to the medical journal World Psychiatry, more than 50 percent of adults with severe mental illness have a co-occurring substance-use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Use states that mental illness may contribute to substance use and addiction and vice versa. Genetics are at play, and environmental influences such as early exposure to stress or trauma, can factor in as well.

Many of Thomas’s friends attended his birthday party in October.

Lorenzo, the family friend, said that it was nice to “have the boys all together again.”

She feels like the area is severely lacking in services, the kind that could’ve helped Thomas. That mental health appointment he was two days away from? He’d waited six months for it.

“What could’ve been prevented to help create change for him?” Lorenzo wondered. “The fact is that there’s not a lot of services immediately available.”

Peeden said that her granddaughter Ashley “was more than an addict.”

She was beautiful, she was kind, she loved fishing, she loved animals and she had the biggest heart, her grandmother said.

“Yes, she struggled with substance use, but she also had struggled with mental-health issues most of her life,” Peeden said. “Most of the time when people have a substance-use disorder, it’s usually due to some sort of trauma, and Ashley had suffered some trauma.”

Peeden feels that fentanyl cases are overlooked because of the stigma of addiction.

“I’ll never be ashamed of how my granddaughter died,” Peeden said. “[Pishdadi] will never be ashamed of how Josh died. But who we are ashamed of is those who choose whose life had value. That’s where the shame lies.

“Where is the outrage?” she asked. 

Lori Gray’s daughter, Stoney, was living near UNCG when she died on Oct. 12, 2022. She was 29 and suffering from addiction. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Now, grandparents are raising grandchildren.

“We’re losing a whole generation,” said Peeden.

Sometimes, even when individuals are able to access help, it’s not enough, like in the case of Gray’s daughter, Stoney.

“She had some struggles with heroin,” Gray said.

While her family tried to get her help, treatment was expensive and Stoney didn’t have insurance. 

While she was able to get into a methadone clinic, a drug used to prevent the onset of opioid withdrawal, Gray doesn’t feel like it was helpful.

There wasn’t accountability or “an end game” at the clinic Stoney went to, Stoney’s sister Nancy Hunnemann said.

“They didn’t have like a schedule or anything to try to wean her off,” said Hunnemann.

“She felt helpless,” Gray said. “It was one closed door after another.”

‘Keeping people alive’

Melissa Floyd-Pickard directs GCSTOP, short for Guilford County Solution to the Opioid Problem. The organization focuses on harm reduction and has been serving the community since 2018. GCSTOP offers multiple programs including their post-overdose response team in which Guilford County EMS workers partner with GCSTOP to follow up with people who have recently overdosed and offer resources such as Narcan or naloxone, drugs that can quickly reverse an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids.

Melissa Floyd-Pickard

“Basically what we try to do is just start some kind of relationship,” Floyd-Pickard said.

People do best when they have a relationship that’s “positive and unconditional,” she said. 

Between July 2019 and June 2020, they made 258 referrals with 106 linkages to care.

GCSTOP also has a syringe-services program which distributes sterile needles and properly disposes of used ones.

During those same years, they distributed 222,290 sterile needles and received 95,605 needles back. They also distributed 2,999 naloxone medications — GCSTOP’s naloxone was responsible for 1,024 overdose reversals.

Floyd-Pickard said that in terms of fentanyl exposure, they’re most concerned about people who are using cocaine, which is considered “pretty safe,” she said.

“We’re seeing cross-contamination with cocaine to the point where people are dying because they don’t carry Narcan because they don’t think they need it,” she explained.

People leaving jail are much more likely to have an overdose because they don’t have tolerance anymore, Floyd-Pickard said.

“If they go back to what they were using before, they could easily die from that,” she said.

Their Justice Involved Program allows them to meet with people who are incarcerated and involved in the justice system to provide support, advocacy and linkage to substance-use treatment.

GCSTOP Interns (courtesy photo)

“We have to do better as far as making harm-reduction more available.” They want to meet people where they are, but not leave them there, she said.

As far as the death-by-distribution law, Floyd-Pickard isn’t so sure that it will do more good than harm. 

“We don’t support that,” she said. “Death-by-distribution acts tend to be really punitive.” 

She said they also “unfairly target underrepresented groups.” 

“For example, when we go out and we do syringe access, it’s 80 percent white and 20 percent other ethnic minorities, right? And then if you go into a jail, it’s the other way around,” she said. “That tells us that there’s a disproportionate amount of charging that happens.” 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Black and Latino people are far more likely to be criminalized than white people despite rates of drug use and sales being similar across racial and ethnic lines.

Census data analyzed by the Drug Policy Alliance noted that despite comprising 13 percent of the US population, “Black people comprise 30 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations.”

Similarly, Latinos make up 17 percent of the population, but comprise 20 percent of people in state prisons for drug offenses, and 37 percent of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses. In 2013, Latinos comprised almost half — 47 percent — of all cases in federal courts for drug offenses.

And this further exacerbates an already flawed justice system.

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2022, Black people were more than four times as likely to be sent to jail than white people. In Guilford County, around two-thirds of inmates are Black despite making up only 36 percent of the county’s population

“I would be very concerned about a death-by-distribution law because it would most likely target those folks who are already at greater risk of a negative outcome. Either dying from an overdose or being jailed,” Floyd-Pickard said.

Rather than pursue punitive punishment, the Drug Policy Alliance recommends decriminalizing drug possession, helping more people receive drug treatment and redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crime. The alliance also recommends eliminating policies that result in disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates and ending policies that exclude people with records from rights such as voting, employment, public housing and public assistance.

Floyd-Pickard said that the focus should be on harm reduction but that currently, there aren’t enough resources in the community.

If people had the resources, Floyd-Pickard said, they would take buprenorphine or methadone, drugs that help treat heroin and other opioid dependence, but clinics don’t have enough spots.

GCSTOP opened up a medication clinic a year ago and it was “completely maxed out.”

Making sure drug recovery programs are low-barrier is also crucial.

Some programs are “just super rigid,” Floyd-Pickard said, and that’s a problem.

“Substance abuse is kind of the only disease that we kick people out of treatment for having. They need to be there,” she said.

Floyd-Pickard said that many people want to get off drugs, but another barrier is painful withdrawals. 

“You can’t function at all when you’re that sick,” she said.

The pandemic threw the organization for a loop. GCSTOP had been making a lot of progress, but they lost a lot of people struggling with addiction during the pandemic. It cut off access to their support networks.

“Addiction really thrives in lonely environments,” Floyd-Pickard said.

There also needs to be less of a stigma associated with people who end up using drugs, Floyd-Pickard said. Instead, education is key.

Floyd-Pickard said that if you are going to do drugs, take steps to avoid an overdose. Use fentanyl test strips or “do tester shots where you’re doing a small amount before you actually push the whole plunger of the syringe.”

“Harm reduction is about keeping people alive,” she said.

Captn. Holder said that one way families can proactively prevent a drug overdose is by looking in their medicine cabinets.

“A lot of the first contacts with opioids are prescription pills in the house,” Holder said.

The city has secure collection boxes for residents to safely dispose of their unwanted or expired medications. 

“There’s no need to have 50 bottles of whatever laying around the house that are expired,” Holder said. “Turn that stuff in, get it out of your house. Don’t leave it out there for the kids to get their hands on.”

‘I will make his life matter’

Lamb said she hasn’t spoken with the police since the day Thomas died.

“It’s very overwhelming because you basically just get an email that says what happened to your kid, and that’s it,” she said. “You get an email that just [shows] that it was fentanyl and that’s all.”

Still, Lamb said she isn’t the vengeful type. She’s not laser-focused on finding out who “gave him the pill,” she said. 

Amy Lamb hasn’t spoken to law enforcement since her son Thomas died. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

“I would prefer to just focus on preventing somebody else from using [drugs] altogether,” Lamb said. “Because I can’t bring my son back, and no amount of punishment is gonna bring him back.”

Harrington agreed.

“There’s no getting [Thomas] back,” Harrington said. “We just have to keep the message going. Don’t think that it can’t happen to your child, because it can.”

“Sometimes it feels like we’re losing. And the police, it’s just bigger than what they can do,” Harrington said. “I think the police can do a better job policing, and we can do a better job educating as a community.”

Lamb has faith that she’ll see her son again, and that sustains her. 

“He floated peacefully off, and I know that I’ll see him again,” she said. “I just have to know that there’s a reason and a purpose and I’ll find out. I will make his life matter and count, and hopefully stop someone else from doing it.”

The stories of Thomas, Andy, Joshua, Stoney and Ashley are just five of the more than 10,000 people lost to fentanyl poisoning in North Carolina between 2019 and 2022. If you are struggling with addiction, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Learn how to perform life-saving measures, and call 911 if someone is overdosing.

RESOURCES

Opioid overdose reversal (Naloxone/Narcan) resources:

  • NEXT Distro mails free Naloxone, a medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, free of charge.

The Guilford County Department of Public Health offers free naloxone kits and instructions/training on its use at these locations:

Greensboro Locations:

  • Guilford County Division of Public Health Pharmacy, 1100 East Wendover Ave
  • Triad Adult & Pediatric Medicine, 1002 S. Eugene St

High Point Locations:

  • Guilford County Division of Public Health Pharmacy, 501 East Green Drive
  • Kaitlyn’s House, 410 Gatewood Ave
  • Triad Adult & Pediatric Medicine, 606 N. Elm

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