The meeting began with public comment from Peggy Weil of the Steady Collective on Haywood Street. The collective strives to keep users of controlled substances healthy in their habits so they can live to see a day when they want to make more responsible choices. Its volunteers build trusting relationships with addicts because if addicts had family or friends to turn to, they might not turn to drugs. In the first quarter this year, the Steady Collective distributed 10,000 syringes. The 250 doses of opioid overdose antidote they dispensed reportedly saved 64 lives.
Weil was “distraught” her group’s needle exchange program had been overlooked for funding. Unlike the media campaign the commissioners were considering, Weil said low-cost needle exchanges are supported by a preponderance of studies concluding they are effective. What’s more, when the opioid crisis runs its course, there will be another next big thing. The Centers for Disease Control, she said, considered Western North Carolina a high-risk area for an AIDS or hepatitis C outbreak.
Next, Timothy Sadler, who can convert any commissioner agenda item into cause to legalize pot, worked his magic. He called attention to a University of Michigan study in which 185 people who were smoking weed for pain were surveyed, and 64 percent said the pot displaced prescription medications. He used the word “cannabis,” he said, because “marijuana” was a “racial slur … used to invoke fear.”
Lastly, Jerry Rice said there had been 165,000 opioid deaths in the United States since 1999, then asked rhetorically, “Why is the bubble popping today?” He thought it had something to do with the mental health reforms of 1999-2000. The era was marked by de-institutionalization, as getting people posing threats to themselves or others off the streets and into intentional care became viewed as a violation of human rights. Now, he claimed, the hospital was overloaded while agencies were taking county money, building healthy fund balances, and abdicating their responsibility to those in need. He insinuated the commissioners were pretending not to know about problems.
Chair Brownie Newman said government bodies are taking sudden interest in opioid abuse because the problem is hockey-sticking. It therefore was imperative to take action, but not without due diligence. Commissioner Mike Fryar said there were surely more programs that, like Weil’s, had been off the commissioners’ radar. At their last meeting, they were trying to solve a big problem in fifteen minutes without all the facts. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara emphasized the need for a more comprehensive view of options before the commissioners decided what to fund, but repeated community policing was an evidence-based best practice.
Commissioner Joe Belcher wanted to assure the citizens of Buncombe County his peers were committed to saving lives by interdicting the opioid epidemic. It therefore followed that experimenting unnecessarily would not be advisable. The commissioners then agreed to direct staff to spend some time researching what initiatives are working elsewhere and what programs already exist in Buncombe County, and develop strategies for consideration in the normal budget process.
In Other Matters –
The story was told of the local daily publishing a three-page feature declaring the childcare dilemma beyond a crisis. In January, the county had issued a Request for Information to raise awareness about the problem and identify partners to help expand pre-K services. Among respondents was Eliada Homes. Eliada already provides childcare for 152 children, and right next to the Eliada campus is a building the county owns. It used to be used for daycare, but it is now vacant.
It was proposed Eliada rent it from the county for $1 a year for the next ten years with a purchase option. In exchange, Eliada would provide daycare for sixty children, giving priority to “children with disabilities and exceptional special needs, including those from low-income households and those facing other barriers to care such as neonatal abstinence syndrome.”
Illustrating Eliada’s mission, President and CEO Tim Sinatra shared a quote misattributed to Mark Twain. “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Sinatra said their organization receives 200 calls per month from people seeking childcare and currently has 118 names on a waiting list. He assured listeners Eliada had been in the business of helping kids since 1903, and they had every intention to continue the mission well beyond the term of the lease.