BY DEBBIE PAGE
At the September Drug-Alcohol Coalition of Iredell meeting, Director Shane Nixon sought to “take the pulse of the community” during a brainstorming session about substance misuse with the diverse group of 30 coalition members present, including various agencies, treatment and prevention organizations, faith-based groups, school representatives, and law enforcement.
Structuring a dialogue around four essential questions, Nixon asked for feedback to spark conversation and ideas before dividing up into a small group brainstorming session.
The group first tackled the question of defining drug “misuse.” Nixon defined it as using alcohol, prescription drugs, street drugs, vape fluids, or other substances in an unhealthy way.
Mooresville Graded School District Chief Communication Officer Tanae McLean added that the World Health Organization defined it as using a substance in a way that is not within legal or medical requirements.
The general consensus from representatives from EMS, law enforcement and treatment agencies to the first question about the trajectory of drug misuse in the county was that agencies are seeing a gradual uptick in use, with occasional spikes.
When asked about the variables that could quickly change substance misuse in the county, District Attorney Sarah Kirkman and Statesville Police Department Officer Chan Austin said that enforcement was “steady.”
SPD’s South Statesville Resource Coordinator Turkessia Brown Evans noted that the shift to community policing places emphasis on figuring out the root of the person’s substance use problem as well as performing enforcement duties, “but it’s up to the person on what they chose to access in terms of services.”
Partners Health Management’s Jerry Campbell believes the most important variable in substance use is the person’s access to the social determinants of health, defined by the World Health Organization as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.”
These determinants include income and social status, social support, education and literacy, employment/working conditions, social and physical environments, personal health practices and coping skills, access to food and transportation, and healthy child development.
“We have to address deficiencies to change substance use,” said Campbell, who noted alcohol was the mostly likely substance to be abused because of easy environmental access.
Insight Human Service’s Ashley Milam pointed out the importance of retail and social access to substances and the influence of family norms around substance use. All of these variables can be influenced through education efforts.
Nixon next asked for opinions about new substances, derivatives, or factors that that are major forces at play in substance misuse, pointing out the increase in fentanyl and the new “social districts” recently approved by the area’s town governing bodies that normalize alcohol consumption and increase access as examples.
Austin emphasized the real danger of fentanyl is that it is being mixed with other substances and being consumed by people who are unaware of its presence. “They are not sure of what they’re getting, and it’s turning into deadly combinations,” he said.
He also noted that the drugs are being packaged to look like candy and presented to youths under the guise of something more acceptable.
Foundation of Hope Ministries’ representative Karen Kidd said that “we need to educate parents and they need to educate their children” about the dangers present in these attractive but deadly “candies” and also fentanyl-laced fake prescription drugs.
McLean said vaping prior to COVID-19 was a problem in MGSD, but after several students had medical emergencies after vaping dangerous substances from a now-closed vape shop in Mooresville, students became more aware of the dangers of ingesting unknown substances.
“It made students realize … we don’t know what we’re getting when we’re smoking this,” said McLean. “Some kids were buying cartridges from local vape shops, but they were being laced with things.”
Nixon noted that fear of authority or legal consequences seemed to have less influence but that the fear of dying does, to which McLean agreed. “Our vaping numbers dropped significantly,” she said.
Kirkman added that the substance the Mooresville students vaped was a schedule I drug, the highest classification, and the shop owners knew they were selling something illegal, even if they may not have known its seriousness.
“You had to specifically ask for the Black Diamond, and they had to get it from a special place — it was not out in the open,” said Kirkman.
SPD Community Resource Coordinator Pam Navey noted a middle schooler told her that some peers were vaping THC and staying high all day. Middle schoolers are frequently vaping nicotine and Delta 8, a psychoactive compound similar to Delta-9 THC that produces a high.
McLean said vaping is still a bigger problem than alcohol or other substance for MGSD schools. Both MGSD and Iredell-Statesville Schools are installing vape detectors to help combat the problem.
Nixon noted the frustration of new substances constantly arriving on the scene. “As soon as we get good at fighting one, there’s a new one that we’ve got to fight,” he said.
Nixon then asked attendees to break into small groups to come up with one specific thing that is not being done but that could make a radical difference.
One group wanted to reduce the stigma associated with getting help and make youth counseling interventions more readily available, which would require more government funds and support to become a reality. Community involvement, especially with faith-based groups, would be also helpful.
Another group advocated developing positive peer youth mentors through youth organizations and leadership groups to exert positive peer pressure to fight substance misuse.
Information sharing is essential, according to another group. If a problem is occurring at a school, parents need to be aware of the specific issue, be educated about it, and intervene with their children.
Another group talked about the importance of getting local elected officials and business leaders involved to use their influence to create policy changes at the state and federal levels.
Nixon also shared an example of “radical change” that a church in Lenoir undertook to create social change. Members printed 15,000 yard signs that they planted all over the city to drive traffic to its church website with the target information. The website got so much traffic that it crashed.
He then asked attendees to think of some “radical” idea or campaign for DACI to embark on to reduce the county’s substance use upward trajectory and share their ideas at the October meeting.
“I’m hearing consistencies. We’ve got to get integration of entities. We need to start when they’re young. We’ve got to get different sectors of the community — business, faith-based — involved.”
“There’s enough consistency in what we are saying to map a strategy to do it.”
The DACI Board is planning two events — a gathering in the fall to get the community more familiar with DACI and its mission and a public forum in the early spring to focus on the major substance use issues affecting the community, bringing experts and those with lived experience to speak on them and offer solutions that people can take back to the community.
The next DACI meeting will be Monday, October 17, at 12 noon at the Cooperative Extension Center at 444 Bristol Drive in Statesville. Lunch is provided.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Contact Nixon at email@example.com for more information or visit the website at http://daciredell.org or its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Drug-Alcohol-Coalition-of-Iredell-557415357723605/.