LUMBERTON — “The last two years, I’ve never seen so many drug overdose deaths in my life,” said Dr. Richard Johnson, a Lumberton pathologist.
Lately, Johnson said, the autopsies he performs as a medical examiner have on an almost weekly basis revealed signs of drug abuse.
Johnson was one of two guest speakers at Palmer Prevention’s 11th annual Orange Ribbon Luncheon on Thursday. The luncheon brought together health officials, politicians, law enforcement and students who coordinate with the nonprofit, which works to prevent and treat substance abuse among Robeson County’s young people.
Presented by Palmer Prevention and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, the luncheon was held at the Southeastern Regional Agricultural Center.
Although drugs — particularly the growing problem of prescription pills —were a focus, the event was held to cap off Alcohol Awareness Month.
April was also North Carolina Beer Month, which, for Executive Director Tom Norton, just adds more fuel to the Palmer Prevention’s fight against substance abuse.
“As a person who doesn’t drink, I would like every person in this room to ask legislators why do I have to pay for people who do?” he said.
Norton said taxes on alcohol should be raised and standards for checking IDs should be more strongly enforced.
Throughout the month of April, students in Robeson County high schools raised awareness about underage drinking and the dangers associated with it.
“If you can get the youth involved … we’ve got a chance of winning this battle with drugs,” Norton said.
During the luncheon, students shared their experiences trying to drive golf carts and play games while wearing “drunk goggles,” watching mock drunk driving wrecks staged out their schools, hearing from those who have lost loved ones to alcohol-related wrecks and passing around petitions for other students to pledge not to drink.
Norton said 90 percent of the young people who seek help at Palmer Prevention get clean.
“Let’s give them a chance to grow up,” he said.
Ben Chavis, also a guest speaker, grew up in Robeson County, although he said drugs are a bigger problem now.
“Every person in this room is affected by drugs one way or another,” he said, before sharing with the crowd how his son-in-law committed suicide after becoming addicted to prescription drugs.
Chavis said teachers and administrators need to do more to prevent drug use among students, and in turn help them do well in school. Chavis, a former principal, called for administrators overseeing failing and drug-using students to be fired.
Johnson painted a picture for attendees as to what it’s like to die a drug-related death, handing out the scratchy material used to clean a body during an autopsy and describing the cold, hard table where the examinations are done.
Overdose is now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States, he said, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If you become a statistic in Robeson County, I’m probably the second to last person you’ll see,” he said.