TEASER Arrest, Handcuffs

Possession of a breakthrough controlled substance that is “spreading like wildfire” soon will have a harsher penalty, according to Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields.

State Sen. Tom McInnis, whose district includes Moore, Richmond, Scotland and Anson counties, was a primary sponsor for Senate Bill 321, which reclassifies possession of substances like fentanyl and some of its derivatives as a more serious offense. The change bumps up such possession to a felony. Governor Roy Cooper signed the bill into law last month.

“Anytime you can increase the severity of a charge, it’s a plus for us. We started having a lot of issues with a lot of the overdose deaths,” Fields said. “It’s a deterrent somewhat to some of the people out here, so hopefully they won’t mess with it.”

The sheriff said that talks with his office and McInnis led to legislation making fentanyl possession more severe. The change comes as the synthetic opioid grows more available. Fentanyl, a pain relieving narcotic, has led to a large number of drug overdose deaths statewide in recent years.

“Fentanyl and opioids are killing our citizens and ravaging our communities, splitting up families and taking children from their parents at a far too early age,” McInnis said. “This bill targets small-time drug dealers that are getting a slap on the wrist because fentanyl possession is a misdemeanor. We need to do everything we can to shut down the opioid crisis in our state. This bill goes a long way to make such a shutdown happen.”

The bill also incorporates new emerging synthetic drugs, such as Clonazolam. It becomes effective Dec. 1.

Fentanyl is believed to be significantly more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Cocaine, methamphetamines and other drugs are mixed with small doses of fentanyl to add to the effects the drugs have on the body.

The drug’s potency has led to a crisis across the country when in the wrong hands.

“These people are not scientists. They’re not chemists. They’re drug users,” Fields said. “It don’t take but just a little dab and you’re gone.”

Statewide data showed that fentanyl’s cause in drug overdose deaths has grown exponentially in North Carolina in recent years. In 2019, the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center reported that more than half of the drug overdose deaths were due in part to traces of fentanyl in victims’ bodies.

Moore County has seen its rise in overdoses as of late, Fields said. The Sheriff’s Office reported 65 overdoses from December 2018 to August 2019. Those figures leapt to 235 overdoses in the county between September 2019 and August 2021. Of that number 18 overdoses were fatal.

The Moore County Detention Center has had overdose deaths in the past linked to fentanyl, but those occurrences have stopped with a new whole-body scanner added to the intake process last December.

“Fentanyl was not designed for recreational use. It’s medical, that’s what it was designed for,” Fields said. “They are in the business to make people high and that’s what they are using it for.”

Fentanyl has also increased the danger during drug raids where the substance is being made.

Many times, local law enforcement go to clear out a drug bust with face masks, gloves and other protective equipment. HAZMAT suits are typically used by state agencies.

“It’s common when you go in on a drug raid. What’s the first thing they try to do? They try to get rid of it,” Fields said. “If they sling it in the air, it becomes airborne.”

Fields cited a situation in neighboring Scotland County where officers who responded to the scene of a drug arrest experienced an overdose by handling or being in the area of the drugs. Those deputies were given doses of Narcan, a prescription nasal spray that counteracts the effects of an overdose, often immediately. Moore County Sheriff’s deputies are equipped and trained to use Narcan when responding to drug overdose calls.

“It’s just like any other thing that comes on the line out here. People see it and see what the effects of it is, and they jump on it,” Fields said.

Fields said that while the punishment will become harsher for those in possession of the narcotic, he doesn’t think arrests will solve the ongoing problem.

He said that the programs and counseling provided to inmates in the Moore County Detention Center could provide resources.

Contact Jonathan Bym at (910) 693-2470 or jonathan@thepilot.com.

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