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cooper to sign law limiting availability of prescription pain killers

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RALEIGH – Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law Thursday a bill that more closely regulates the prescribing of pain killers, which state officials say has resulted in an increase in addiction and helped fuel an opioid crisis that is killing an average of more than 3 people a day in North Carolina.

The Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention or STOP Act limits doctors to prescribing no more than a five-day supply of opioids such as Percocet during an initial visit to treat a patient’s pain issue, such as a broken bone. Doctors can prescribe a bigger supply during follow-up visits, and the limit doesn’t apply to cancer patients and others being treated for chronic pain.

Medical providers are also required to submit prescriptions for controlled substances electronically and participate in North Carolina’s existing reporting system that aims to prevent “doctor shopping.”

The bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously.

The signing comes on the heels of what has become an annual gathering of politicians, law enforcement officials and health care providers to discuss the misuse of opioids. State Attorney General Josh Stein praised the bill at the summit Wednesday as part of a broader strategy that emphasizes treatment and prevention rather than simple law enforcement.

Since his election in November, Stein said he has traveled around the state listening to people whose lives have been shattered by opioid addiction. They include a teen who became addicted to prescription pills and stole $80,000 from her parents in the span of a year to support her habit, he said, and a High Point resident who was hooked on heroin at 15 and then homeless at 18, sleeping in a Walmart parking lot.

“One in 100 babies go through drug withdrawal, and that number is only increasing,” Stein said. “They have difficulty eating, difficulty breathing and their high-pitched wailing goes on for days.”

Stein said about 80 percent of all men behind bars in North Carolina and virtually 100 percent of the women were convicted of crimes directly or indirectly related to drugs. Stein said he wants to support law enforcement agencies, by giving them tools they need to fight the epidemic. But he said he is wary of minimum mandatory prison sentences for those convicted of drug offenses, saying that punishment should be left to the discretion of judges.

That position was echoed by another featured speaker at the summit, Lorenzo Jones, co-founder and executive director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, a Connecticut-based non-profit that organizes communities and mentors local leaders for work involving social justice.

Jones recalled the government’s response to the crack cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s, when the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 signed into law by President Bill Clinton turned the judicial system into an assembly line. Tens of thousands of police officers were hired, and drug courts were established and mandated life sentences were handed down to criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. The mandated life sentences were known as the “three-strikes” provision.

Jones and others say the Clinton crime bill contributed to the mass incarceration of black, brown and poor people. Missing from that approach, he said, was treatment and compassion for those addicted to drugs.

“What we found is that we were feeding people to the beast,” he said.

He said that justice in the middle of the opioid crisis should include policies that do the least harm to those who are struggling with addiction, particularly in impoverished, marginalized communities of color.

“A guiding principle of harm reduction is we meet people where they are,” he told the summit. “There are people sitting in places you can’t imagine in your worst dream, and they are depending on you to keep your word.”

On Tuesday, Cooper, kicked off the event by announcing a series of steps to try to stem the number of opioid overdoses, which he said has claimed more than 12,000 lives in the state since 1999, including about 1,200 last year.

Stein noted the success of an earlier measure signed into law by Cooper’s predecessor, Pat McCrory. The 2013 Good Samaritan Law allows people to seek medical help for an overdose by offering limited immunity for some drug, alcohol, and probation or parole violations. It also grants civil and criminal immunity to anyone who administers the overdose antidote naloxone in good faith and allows community-based organizations to distribute naloxone through a special prescription from a medical provider.

“Last year, there were more overdose reversals in North Carolina than there were deaths,” Stein said. “We must celebrate the lives that were saved.”

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