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Drug unit to expand

When county commissioners voted unanimously to approve and match funds for a state Drug Diversion Grant, they sent a message: the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office will be cracking down on the abuse of prescription pain pills.
The county go-ahead came last Monday with approval for a Governor’s Crime Commission grant allowing the sheriff’s office to hire a full time drug diversion officer. The job entails investigating prescription drug crimes, from street-level sales to “doctor shopping,” and teaching local healthcare professionals and pharmacists the red flags that indicate their services are being abused, said sheriff’s office officials.
According to Lt. Joshua Shiflett, spokesman for the sheriff’s office drug unit, a dedicated officer with specialized drug diversion training will make the drug unit’s cases more solid in court, as well as free up the six existing drug unit investigators to focus on other illicit drug cases.
Nationwide, the abuse of pain meds has exploded, from accidental addiction to recreational use. Beaufort County is no exception to the trend: this year alone, the sheriff’s office has investigated 55 cases involving prescription drugs.
Capt. Russell Davenport, a 15-year veteran of the drug unit, said prescription pain pills and heroin are replacing cocaine and marijuana as the drugs of choice being sold and used locally. His unit makes undercover buys of pills on a daily basis, he said — testament to how much is out there, as well as how much demand there is for the drugs.
One of the reasons prescription pain pill abuse has become so prevalent is that little stigma is attached to its use, and abuse, said Shiflett, pointing out that an opiate is an opiate, regardless of form — the brain can’t tell the difference between heroin and the synthetic opiates in painkillers like Oxycodone. He said prescription pain medication abuse is nondiscriminatory, in that drug unit investigations have seen abuse spanning all demographics.
“They justify it in their minds — it’s prescription, so it’s not a street drug,” Shiflett said, adding that it’s the younger generations that are most affected by the accessibility of pain meds: younger users are getting addicted earlier to harder drugs.
A drug diversion officer within the sheriff’s office drug unit would focus on exactly that: the diversion of drugs from their intended purpose to an illegal one. While it’s not a crime to be addicted to legally prescribed pain medication, visiting multiple healthcare professionals to feed an addiction is. Having a prescription for pain medication is not illegal, but reselling the meds would be, and if insurance covers the purchase of those painkillers, charges would extend to insurance fraud, as well.
The new drug diversion officer would be the point person for communication with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit, one of the few state agencies with access to the Controlled Substance Reporting System. CSRS is a statewide reporting system established by North Carolina law to improve the state’s ability to identify people who abuse and misuse prescription drugs and to prevent diversion of prescribed controlled substances.
The grant for the new position not only signifies the commitment of the county commissioners and the sheriff’s office to be progressive, recognize drug trends and stay ahead of the game, but it also represents a rare opening in the drug unit, said Shiflett.
“We’ve got a lot of well-qualified people interested in working with the drug unit,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for whoever’s able to get (the job).”