JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It’s a trend top law enforcement officers in Tennessee call profound, saying it is only getting worse.
The entire state is seeing a rise in counterfeit drugs. People are buying one drug on the street, but getting something entirely different. Most often, it is laced with the powerful and deadly opioid, fentanyl.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports overdoses from fentanyl are the leading cause of death for adults ages 18 to 45, surpassing heart disease, suicide and cancer.
Rayford Johnson, senior pastor of Jubilee World Outreach church in Johnson City, says he is shocked by how often he is hearing of people dying from drugs laced with fentanyl in our community.
“Please be careful. Please be careful. People are dying from drug use. I want to sound the alarm. Please, please, please pay attention,” Johnson said.
He decided to issue a “call to action” to the community, saying everyone needs to be aware of this issue and help work to stop it.
“These drugs are killing people. That’s why I am so concerned. That is why I am trying to be the voice crying out in the wilderness saying, ‘pay attention,'” said Johnson. “These people get into a situation, they get some bad drugs and they are dead.”
At Turning Point, a 24/7 drug and mental health crisis center and branch of Frontier Health, they see this issue on a daily basis.
“The numbers are scary and staggering,” said Polly Jessen, a supervisor at Turning Point’s walk-in center.
Jessen reports overdoses are on consistently the rise year over year. Most commonly they are seeing synthetic substances like meth and fentanyl.
“We know through the TBI that about five out of every seven pills bought on the street are laced with fentanyl,” Jessen said.
Another sobering statistic: Turning Point data shows someone dies of overdose in our seven-county region of upper-Northeast Tennessee at least every other day. The average is 18 fatal overdoses per month. Last year, the reported average was 15 per month.
“Fentanyl is mixed in everything. We are seeing people come in who think they are using methamphetamines and they are testing positive for fentanyl,” said Monica Tucker, program manager at Turning Point.
The most recent Tennessee data from 2020 shows in Washington County 44 people died of overdose. 60 people died in Sullivan County.
“That is somebody’s brother, sister, mother, somebody’s father. It’s impacting families and it’s a ripple effect,” said Tucker.
Johnson says it all starts with the community educating themselves on what is happening and spreading awareness.
“As a community we cannot put our heads in the sand. We need to listen, be educated and know we can make a difference if we will reach out and work together,” Johnson said. “If we save one person doing these things and coming together and passing out Narcan, it’s going to be well worth every effort I could give.”
Johnson also serves as chaplain for the ETSU football team and says he will soon be named president of the local NAACP chapter. He says he is reaching out to “anyone who will listen” in the community about getting involved in the fight and campaign for awareness.
Turning Point leaders agree this is the path forward. They say everyone in the community partnering together is the only way to get real change in fighting the drug epidemic.
“Addiction is a disease and it is a community issue. It touches everyone that lives in the community whether you realize it or not,” said Jessen.
Adding resources to remove barriers for those in active recovery from addiction helps keep people from falling into the same cycle, according to Tucker.
“There could be more organization or programs that allow individuals who have a past or legal issues access to jobs that can help them be stable,” she said. “The community could have more collaboration. Spread more awareness about the issue.”