Opioid addiction has skyrocketed across the country, and North Carolina has been hit hard. 

Approximately three people die every day from opioid overdoses in the state, which has four of the top 20 cities for opioid abuse nationally, with rural and poorer areas particularly affected. Yet experts and policymakers are still optimistic that increased awareness and oversight will help stop the crisis.

Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers and State Attorney General Josh Stein announced a proposal called Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) aimed at restricting opioid prescriptions and increasing funds for heroin addiction treatment in the state. The proposal asks for $20 million over two years for substance abuse treatment but does not allow state funds to be used for needle exchange programs.

Pharmacies would be required to check a controlled substance database for a patient’s prescription history if they have reason to believe the patient may be obtaining the drug for improper use. Doctors would also have to prescribe controlled substances using a computer, rather than paper, to avoid fraud due to stolen prescription pads or forgery. 

In addition, the proposal would further mandate that pharmacies report what controlled substances they dispense to the database.

Christopher Edwards, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, noted that an increasing number of addiction cases are originating from legitimate legal prescriptions.

“The number of individuals that for logical and appropriate reasons get an initial…legitimate legal script from a doctor and who ultimately become addicted through that mechanism is relatively high," he said. "When those patients are no longer able to get the medications that they crave through legal mechanisms, many then revert to…illegal mechanisms. The availability of cheap narcotics on the streets has proliferated in a way that no one ever anticipated.” 

Edwards went on to emphasize the importance of education in curbing opioid abuse, noting that doctors, patients and community members all need to be more aware of the effects of opioids.

“Education is at the top of list in terms of reducing the morbidities and mortalities associated with opiates," Edwards said. "Education to doctors is absolutely essential. Many of us who are in the pain area spend a lot of time talking to primary care doctors and other doctors who normally prescribe opiates but may not have the expertise about what resources are available to them."

He explained that education efforts must also work to revise patients' expectations about when it is appropriate to take opiates. 

Other efforts to address the crisis include lifesaving dugs to treat overdoses. Last year, former Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill that permitted pharmacies to dispense naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, to some people without a prescription. Many law enforcement agencies around the state have begun equipping their officers with naloxone. 

So far, the STOP Act has support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Seventy-five members of the State House and 18 members of the State Senate have signed on as sponsors. The act has been referred to House and Senate committees for consideration. 

Republican Greg Murphy of Pitt County, North Carolina was one of several Republicans representatives who co-sponsored the bill.

“Curbing opioid abuse doesn’t just start at the physician’s office," Murphy said during the press conference announcing the bill March 2. "Pharmacies need to be accountable as well."