The Drug Alcohol Coalition of Iredell County invited several area agencies to talk about their services to help youth and citizens avoid the dangers of substance misuse at its recent gathering at the Iredell County Agricultural Extension.

Dan Wanta, a juvenile court counselor with the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, explained the juvenile court process once a youth is charged with an offense. After a conference with the juvenile and family members and gathering victims’ statements, officials assess the risk level, needs, crime level, and potential for re-offense.

After this process, one of three paths occur. The complaint is closed without action, the case is diverted with a plan or contract for counseling, services, and community service, or the case is approved to reach court, with probation, mediation, and comprehensive clinical assessments and therapeutic services to get the youth back on track.

The complainant or victim can appeal the decision if the case is not recommended for court, leading the case to further investigation by the district attorney.

Wanta noted that an increase in complaints, usually drug use or possession, alcohol use or possession, or simple assault, has occurred with the resumption of in-person schooling. Offenders have a one-hour mental health based assessment to decide whether a more comprehensive clinical assessment or treatment is needed.

Drug offenses are usually related to alcohol, marijuana and pills. Vaping, including THC- laced vape fluids and edibles, are harder to detect because no smells occur.

District Attorney Sarah Kirkman added that pill use is declining, mostly due to awareness programs, lock box giveaways, and drug take-backs that groups such as DACI conducts. Most youth cases deal with marijuana use, most of which are diverted to programs like Piedmont Mediation’s Youth Offender Diversion Alternative (YODA) for first-time offenders.

Many marijuana cases are diverted because of a lack of clarity in the state statutes, according to Kirkman. The confiscated marijuana must be over .3 percent THC, but the state lab doesn’t test for that level. Offenders can argue the substance is hemp without expensive private lab testing.

The popular Delta-8 THC vape or gummies are also derived from marijuana or hemp. Kirkman said some prosecutors are not prosecuting possession, but “in my opinion it’s illegal and I will prosecute.”

DACI Director Jill McLelland said it was “unfortunate” that the Iredell-Statesville School System is not conducting the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey this year. “I really think our climate has changed since COVID,” she explained.

The 2019 survey results indicated that vaping and alcohol use were above the state level. McLelland said the state is anticipating larger increases in all substance use in both the middle and high school populations because of COVID-19 stress and isolation.

District Court Judge Rob Young also noted the increase in meth use, including infants born with the substance in their systems. Children are also getting into their parents’ stash or subjected to parents’ use in the confined home space.

The Department of Social Services is now testing young kids for meth exposure, many of whom show significant levels in their blood. “They are involuntary drug users,” said Young.

McLelland agreed that the area is seeing significant increases in meth use after the crackdown on opioids. Unfortunately, meth is an even harder addiction to kick, she said.

Rev. Jesse Stroud of Southern Family Medicine is seeing an alarming number of positives for fentanyl among marijuana users, indicating the presence of fentanyl-laced product in the area.

Terri Blankenship, a member of the EMS Community Response Support Team, also discussed the array of services to DACI. The two peer-support specialists and two paramedics reach out within 72 hours of an EMS call to offer services to recent overdose or chronic disease patients.

The team also accepts referrals from family, friends, and law enforcement.

The benefits of the team’s efforts include a healthier community, hope to those in addiction or chronic illness, a reduction in harm, taxpayer savings in unnecessary EMS runs, and showing vulnerable citizens that the community cares.

The peer-support specialists focus on patients with alcohol dependency, overdoses, and addiction, with the paramedics working more with those with chronic illness, frequent falls, unsafe living conditions, and some with substance use disorder.

With permission, the paramedics conduct in-home assessments for fall dangers, do nutritional and disease education, and help with medication compliance. They also connect frequent EMS callers to primary care physicians.

Peer support specialists contact those with substance use issues to offer support, resources, and treatment options while building rapport and trust. They often meet the person for lunch or coffee and help them identify their needs by listening to their needs and without pushing them.

If the person is not ready for treatment, they then offer harm-reduction options, including Narcan, syringe exchange, fentanyl test strips, and medically assisted treatment (MAT). These strategies help reduce self-harm and reduce community disease spread.

“We plant a seed to let them know help is out there,” said Blankenship. The team’s goal is to show compassion to folks that don’t often get much of it.

“We never turn anybody away,” Blankenship added.

She noted that 2020 had the highest number of overdoses ever.

The team can offer help coordinate with helping agencies, childcare transportation, and financial costs until the patient can get on Medicaid and get treatment started. The team can also cover treatment costs with donated funds but not taxpayer money.

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