Behind The Front Lines Of East Tennessee’s Opioid Crisis
Opioid Addiction In Roane County
Opioid addiction is a public health emergency in East Tennessee, health officials say. Despite increased enforcement, data show the state has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country. Doctors in 2015 prescribed opioids more than 7.8 million times – or more than one prescription "for every man, woman and child" in Tennessee, The Tennessean reports.
Among the hardest hit areas in East Tennessee is Roane County. It's a small community of lush rolling hills and Great Smoky Mountain views about an hour from Knoxville where nearly everybody knows someone who has overdosed from opioids.
Addiction is changing this close-knit Southern Appalachian community’s way of life.
The Role Of Geography
A key factor driving the opioid epidemic in Roane County is its location along several interstate highways known to be popular with cross-country drug traffickers. "The Appalachia region is arguably the epicenter of this crisis," say federal officials, who include many parts of East Tennessee in the so-called Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
"East Tennessee is in the crosshairs of the drug traffic," says Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton.
Drugs are easier to find than addiction treatment in this region. Many communities in East Tennessee lack adequate access to doctors, mental health or addiction services. Waiting lists for detox are long, and without help many struggling addicts overdose, die or end up behind bars before treatment beds open up.
Calls for change have grown louder in recent years. East Tennessee community leaders increasingly want more drug prevention and treatment options, and more alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug addicts in Appalachia.
In February, 2016, Roane County launched a new drug treatment court officials hoped would help reduce the overdose death rate and help struggling addicts who commit crimes overcome their addiction and stay out of jail for good.
TruckBeat documented the first day of Roane County's drug treatment court and followed the story over the next five months. Here are three stories from that ongoing series:
Sleeping On Boats: Drugs And Mental Illness Drive Jail Overcrowding
Nearly all Roane County inmates are locked up for drug-related crimes.
The system is maxed out. Now, officials are seeking alternatives to incarceration and more addiction treatment to ease overcrowding.
"Coming to jail is not the answer for mental illness and drug addiction."
In this story, we meet Roane County police and probation officers, who say the opioid epidemic has changed the way they see the criminal justice system – and themselves.
Pink Clouds: Inside East Tennessee’s Opioid Epidemic
One night with the Roane County Sheriff's Department drug task force.
"I'm very proud of the way that we handle it. We are definitely a tight group of people."
In this story, we follow sheriff's deputies through their nightly rounds in East Tennessee. Teams of officers check in on drug court participants and operate a pre-dawn drug trafficking checkpoint on the front lines of the region's opioid epidemic.
I Wasn’t Trying To Kill Him: Vince Brown’s Story
What's it like to have an addicted child? Where do you turn for help?
In this story, we meet Vince Brown. His son Michael was a professional baseball pitcher before an injury left him with a fierce addiction to prescription painkillers.
"I think about it every day, a thousand times a day. What could I have done different?"
Vince's story reflects the struggle of millions of American families across the country today.
Producer and Director: Jess Mador
Editor and Cinematographer: Phil Batta
Music by: Sam Keenan
TruckBeat is part of Localore: Finding America, a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio.