Hendersonville – Deadly fentanyl, now camouflaged as colorful candy, a “zombie drug,” and vaping are rising substance abuse trends that the Hope Coalition is dealing with through its counseling and education programs and pre-trial outreach.
The non-profit is based in Hendersonville. The group’s purpose is “preventing substance use among youth and focusing on long-term recovery for anyone impacted by alcohol and drug addiction.” This involves public and individualized education for prevention, addiction recovery, and advocacy, such as for treatment programs.
We Are Hope is a week-long motivational and educational program sponsored by the Hope Coalition and Henderson County Public Schools. It was in all ten HCPS high schools and middle schools. It concluded last Friday with dozens of student leaders celebrating their anti-substance abuse pledges in a mid-day rally at the Historic Courthouse.
Several Hope Coalition staff members and volunteers attended. Julie Huneycutt has been the director since 2014. Michelle Gilliken Geiser is the program director. Erica Bowman leads the Hope Rising program, which includes Teen Court classes to help keep youths out of addiction and resulting legal troubles.
Opioid Settlement Funds
The Hope Coalition is among local drug-fighting organizations potentially in line for a cut of Henderson County’s share of $26 billion in legal settlement money from a lawsuit against drug makers. It is over for “their alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic,” county publicist Mike Morgan said. Morgan and the local county’s Behavioral Health System Coordinator, Jodi Z. Grabowski, point to this upcoming funding.
Shares are $750 million for North Carolina over 18 years, Morgan noted. “Henderson County will receive funding in two waves,” he said. “The first wave will be $8,897,700 over an 18-year period, with an estimated $7,046,134 in wave two.” The commissioners are exploring optional uses of the money.
Teen Court is a 12-week course for local youths ages 13–19 as the cornerstone of the Pre-Trial Diversion program that launched in mid-2021. Coordinator Erika Bowman said this is for teens who “battle substance abuse, not necessarily facing criminal charges.”
Those who have drug-related arrests can avoid going to trial if granted permission to take the special course. Sessions are 1.5 hours on Mondays. Supper is provided, Bowman said. The Hope Coalition works with Juvenile Justice to provide Teen Court.
Youths who show “signs” of being at risk for addiction, such as often vaping and skipping school, are referred to Teen Court from such sources as Social Services, their parents, or school administrators or counselors, Bowman said.
Teen Court teaches anger management and “self-regulation skills, and coping and healthy outlets” such as physical exercise, Bowman said. “Teens have high hormones, high emotions. If they get super angry, they might need to run and scream or learn to box. Or they need a counselor.”
The Hope Coalition helps people of varying ages with the skills of interviewing for jobs and writing resumes to help secure gainful employment.
Above all in Teen Court, Bowman said, “we talk to them about different drugs and their dangers.” There are plenty of dangerous substances out there, but there are also pathways to recovery.
“You can die from an amount of fentanyl the size of a pencil tip,” Bowman said. “A tiny amount can kill you.” Cheap Fentanyl is mixed in as filler in such drugs as opioids, meth, and THC pot gummies, Bowman and others said.
Despite lethal risks, Bowman said that “in active addition, you’re thinking of your next best high. You’re not thinking of death. If you’re told ‘it can kill you,‘ you say, “Let’s (still) do it!’”
Program Director Geiser said a basic barrier to reaching teens is smashing past their sense of invincibility. “Every kid thinks it (addiction) will never happen to him or her.”
Bowman said that when teens try substances, “some of them believe that they can handle it” better than others can. “Some have a tolerance to it, and it doesn’t kill them.” Adults also “might be ‘functioning addicts” and not act obviously addicted. “But inside, they don’t function well.” Worse, “others end up dead,” Bowman said. “They have no clue what they’re doing” and about the dangers of fentanyl.
Bowman emphasizes that, as an immediate step, “people who are battling addiction to fentanyl can get Narcan from our Recovery Community Center — no questions asked.”
Bowman knows firsthand the trappings and consequences of addiction. “I was in prison for six years,” she told the Tribune. “I’m bipolar, with complex post-traumatic stress syndrome.” She gained much from local “support programs,” she said. “That led me to Hope Coalition into their peer support” after running Goodwill’s Work First program.
Bowman is trained as a peer support specialist and “youth mental health first aid,” she said. “I specialize in trauma-enforced approaches. We’re trauma-resilient.”
Drug Fads, Traps
Newer drug fads, including Xylazine, are in big cities. It is called the “zombie drug” and “tranq.” This heavy sedative is shown to rot skin and suppress one’s respiratory function so much that they can stumble.
There is a rise in the volume of fake Percocet, oxycodone pain pills, or anti-anxiety Xanex, along with presses to make them, Bowman said. “It’s hard to tell the difference between counterfeit and authentic pills.” One way is to examine the manufacturing code stamped. Authorities confiscated a batch with merely a single digit hastily stamped on.
In the local drug scene, “what we see now is just insane,” Hope Coalition certified peer support specialist and drug and alcohol counselor (CDAC) “Beth” said. She used cocaine when she was in high school in the late Eighties. “The strains of marijuana are much more potent. There was meth for a while,” she said. “Now there’s fentanyl. It might start with getting prescribed it. They get addicted to it, then buy it off the street. You don’t know what you’re getting.”
Vaping is supplanting cigarette smoking among teens and the 30-something party crowd. Hope Coalition Director Honeycutt said that “we’re explaining the dangers of vaping.” Geiser said warning about hazards of vaping and its mystery ingredients is a “new priority.”
On one hand, mind-altering Delta-8 synthetic marijuana is legally sold in many areas in the country. But Delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is believed to be twice as strong with such harsh side effects as paranoid delusions, high anxiety, impaired motor skills, and mental fog. Grabowski said that “high potency THC” is legally sold with some vaping kits, and is more problematic than purchasers likely realize.
Bowman said, “This lab-generated marijuana is not natural. You can overdose from it. It can cause a seizure. You’re smoking heavy metals and formaldehyde. Kids ask me, ‘Don’t they use that on dead bodies?!’ It’s what preserves frogs in biology class.” Further, she said THC varieties are much stronger than cannabidiol (CBD) from hemp, and can cause the user to fail a work-related drug test.