The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released a funding opportunity on Oct. 19 intended to decrease the impact of the opioid crisis on people in the criminal justice system.
The funding — which was given to the NCDHHS as an award from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance — amounts to $5.8 million. At least nine organizations across the state will receive this money as a grant through an application process.
Applications can be found on the NCDHHS website, and are due Dec. 3. The anticipated performance period is from Feb. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023, according to the application.
Kody Kinsley, the NCDHHS chief deputy secretary for health, who oversees the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, said the link between substance use and the criminal justice system is often manufactured by substance use being treated as criminal action instead of treatable disease.
“Substance use disorder is a disease,” Kinsley said. “Yet, it is a medical issue that is criminalized for many, and more often enforced for people of color, unfortunately.”
Nearly 3,000 people in North Carolina died from drug overdoses in 2020 — up about 26 percent from 2019, according to the Opioid Action and Substance Use Plan Data Dashboard. Additionally, emergency department visits in the state related to opioid overdoses have increased steadily during the pandemic.
Kinsley said the pandemic has put strain on everyone, and that, though a sudden loss of stability can increase the likelihood of relapse, these grants can help.
“The great news is that while we have a historical stigma in our country about substance use being a failure of will, what we know now is that substance use disorder - and in particular opioid abuse - is a disease, and like other diseases it can be treated," Kinsley said.
The NCDHHS will use these grants to implement prevention strategies and medication-assisted treatment, based on the Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan to decrease overdose deaths and to decrease criminal justice involvement in the opioid crisis.
The plan’s priorities include increasing access to services for people who are members of historically marginalized groups. It emphasizes non-opioid pain prescriptions, increasing access to overdose prevention education and expanding medication-assisted treatment during incarceration, upon release and with reentry.
The most significant of these medications is naloxone — commonly known by the brand name Narcan — an opioid overdose reversal drug. The NCDHHS has distributed 250,000 doses of naloxone since January 2019 as part of their Opioid Action Plan.
“There’s quite a bit of documented evidence that these are strategies that work,” Kinsley said. “Medication-assisted treatment is the gold standard of care.”
He added that arresting those who have substance use disorders – only for them to relapse upon release – has not been working.
The Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department is using a similar NCDHHS grant awarded this January to also help address the opioid epidemic.
The program, called the Lantern Project, attempts to expand pre- and post-arrest diversion for those with substance use disorder. It also increases screening for incarcerated and reentering individuals to ensure treatment is timely and effective.
“The key is to sort of meet people where they’re at, keep them from being further traumatized by the criminal justice system when we know that the underlying behavioral health issues, particularly substance use, are what’s contributing to the low-level offending,” said Orange County criminal justice resource director Caitlin Fenhagen.
North Carolina has invested about $15 million in treatment for justice-involved individuals in the last two years. The money has been delivered to counties and municipalities across the state through grant opportunities, such as the funds awarded to the NCDHHS by the federal government this month.
"The pandemic is shining a bright light on the substance abuse crisis in our country," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a press release. "We know that many people in our prisons need treatment and these resources will assist them in leading safe, productive lives when they reenter society."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.