OxyContin (copy) (copy)

OxyContin pills seen in front of a bottle of the prescription opioid. Abuse of these drugs as well as illegal narcotics like heroin, have prompted law enforcement officials from the Charleston area as well as federal agencies operating in South Carolina to call a press conference on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 to address the ongoing opioid epidemic. File/AP

Federal Judge Bruce Hendricks heard a disturbing statistic from the DEA in March: The Lowcountry’s opioid overdose rate is 240 percent higher than the national average.

Sadly, she wasn’t all that surprised.

“I’d been seeing it in the drug court,” the judge says. “We had been talking about the epidemic.”

Hendricks started one of the nation’s first federal drug courts here in Charleston about nine years ago, modeled after Judge Irv Condon’s state court, and it’s been quite the success. The U.S. District Court’s drug docket certainly hasn’t seen a lack of business.

That mind-numbing overdose statistic from the DEA makes perfect sense in light of the news last week that Charleston County has dispensed more opioids than any other place in the country.

Between 2006 and 2012, the amount of opioids that passed through here amounted to enough for 248 doses per resident. As Mary Katherine Wildeman reports, millions of those pills went through the Veterans Affairs’ Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy in North Charleston.

It only stands to reason that more opioids in circulation leads to more overdoses. So Hendricks went to work. The judge recruited former Obama administration National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske, and in March they quietly set up the Addiction Crisis Task Force.

The idea was to bring law enforcement — including the Sheriff’s Office and Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant police — together with MUSC, the College of Charleston, local EMS officials, the U.S. Attorney’s office, local solicitors, the state’s Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, Favor South Carolina, Wake Up Carolina, the Lowcountry Chaplaincy and local schools to find a way to reduce overdoses and opioid addiction. And save lives.

That coordination, and bringing together every entity that touches this crisis, is the key. For too long, health care professionals and police didn’t share information on opioid abuse. Some of that stemmed from privacy laws, but it was also a reflection of their differing missions.

The upshot was a lot of people falling through the cracks. “Somebody may buy their drugs in North Charleston, overdose in the county, get treatment in some other jurisdiction and have an address in Charleston or Mount Pleasant,” Kerlikowske says.

The first step is to have law enforcement officers carry Narcan and Naloxone — drugs that can reverse an opioid overdose. The task force wants police to visit overdose victims with a recovery coach, someone who’s overcome an opioid addition, to try to persuade that person to get some help. To offer them a way out. Mount Pleasant officers are already doing this, and Charleston and North Charleston are expected to start making similar visits soon.

Ultimately, the goal of the Addiction Crisis Task Force is to reduce the number of overdoses and get people off opioids — drugs that often cost people their marriages, children, jobs and even their lives. The key is to get people treatment quickly. As Kerlikowske says, opioid withdrawal can start in 12 hours. So the promise of a slot in a rehab center three weeks away is useless.

The important thing here is to treat this addiction as an illness, not simply fill up the prisons with users.

“We are trying to look at it from a disease standpoint, rather than as a moral failing,” Kerlikowske says.

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The task force started by adapting elements from similar organizations across the country, including the Police Assisted Addition and Recovery Initiative in Gloucester, Mass. And the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance in Vermont.

They looked for models that worked, and those groups have been markedly successful. Between 2017 and 2018, for instance, Burlington’s opioid overdoses decreased by 50 percent.

Reducing overdoses here by 50 percent would still leave the Lowcountry well above the national average, but Judge Hendricks says the power of cooperation between government agencies and health care professionals has given her hope they can do even better.

She has been particularly impressed with how earnestly police officers want to help people break the cycle of addiction. “We’ve got to get this thing under control,” Hendricks says.

This is a good start. Ask anyone who knows the judge, and they will tell you that Hendricks gets results. That’s exactly what the Lowcountry needs.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.