Dr. Greg Murphy, a State Representative, physician, and surgeon from Greenville, N.C., talks about the opioid epidemic and what the North Carolina General Assembly is doing to combat it.
Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters.
Few North Carolinians have been untouched by the widespread devastation that has resulted from the opioid crisis that is plaguing our state and nation. Presently in North Carolina, more accidental deaths are occurring from drug overdoses than from automobile accidents and gun-related homicides.
Our guest today is State Representative Greg Murphy, who is a physician and surgeon from Greenville, North Carolina. Rep. Murphy has worked tirelessly during the past two legislative sessions to strengthen North Carolina’s response to the opioid epidemic facing our state and nation and he has led the passage of The STOP Act in 2017 and the HOPE Act earlier this year. We are grateful to have Rep. Murphy with us today to discuss this critically important issue from his perspective not only as a physician and a lawmaker, but also as a husband and a father.
Representative Murphy, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you back on the show.
GREG MURPHY: John thank you so much for the invitation, I’m happy to be here.
JOHN RUSTIN: Now Rep. Murphy, opioids are a class of FDA approved drugs that are legal when appropriately prescribed by a physician for pain relief or some other legitimate purpose. So why have these drugs wreaked so much havoc on individuals and families across the nation?
GREG MURPHY: Well because, John, in and of themselves they have an intrinsic quality to addictive pattern, and they can actually physically change the brain’s chemistry in certain individuals. Because of that a person unknowingly can become addicted to a pain medicine that’s prescribed for them altogether for the right reasons, to relieve pain from a fracture, a kidney stone, or any of the other disorders, and unfortunately can become hooked on the medication itself.
JOHN RUSTIN: So what do we know about opioid addiction as far as risk factors are concerned? Who is most likely to be affected by it, or is everybody as suseptable as everyone else to potentially becoming victimized by this sort of addiction?
GREG MURPHY: I think it’s the second point John, anyone, any socioeconomic, any demographic, anyone can become addicted to opioids, because opioids actually change the brain’s chemistry. Just like diabetes for example, diabetes is a change in the chemistry of the pancreas requiring people to take insulin. So in that disease there’s a change in the body’s function. What happens with opioid addiction is it actually changes the brain’s chemistry and it makes us crave this particular drug far above anything else sometimes in life; far above eating, far above family concerns, business concerns, it’s an all-encompassing true disease. It’s a true disease. We can talk a little bit about the sigma of opioid addiction, but that’s a major hurdle that we’re going to have to overcome.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well no doubt about it. I know in testimony in the legislature, and as discussions have gone on there, in particular we’ve heard just amazing stories to the lengths that individuals will go to , to find these drugs, to continue to feed that addiction. And it can be so destructive, not only for the individuals who are caught up in the addiction but for their family, friends and others who become victimized by this addiction as well because they are the victims of crimes or theft or things of that nature. Now Rep. Murphy, when we last spoke the legislature had just passed the STOP Act in 2017. If you would, give us a little background on that bill, its impetus and objectives.
GREG MURPHY: Well the STOP Act worked primarily on trying to limit the flow of legally prescribed opioids. I can give you a couple hour history lecture on this, the long and the short is physicians 30 years ago were being blamed for not treating pain well enough. Drug companies responded by creating extremely powerful pain pills. At first they claimed that they were not addictive, so physicians were then subsequent given a medication and told it was not addictive and began prescribing it more and more and more. Drug companies pushed this drug and so what we saw was the rise in the early 2000 and coming into the 2000-teen, is a calamitous rise in the number of these pills prescribed. Subsequently more and more addiction occurred and so what we had to do with the STOP Act was to cut back physicians prescribing habits and say look, you can only prescribe so many pills for acute pain. What this has done really, and actually nationwide, is we’ve seen a precipitous drop in the number of legally prescribed narcotics for pain, and it’s not really hurt any individuals because we really were prescribing too many. Secondly thing that the STOP Act did is it worked to help get some medications out of the homes. Hospice for example, when people were prescribed narcotics to ease suffering at the end of life, oftentimes when someone passes away there are plenty of pills left, and what we’ve done is require education for those families on how best to turn those pills back in so they’re not sitting in medicine cabinets for a grandchild or someone else to abuse. Then finally we really worked to get monies to help community-based substance abuse treatment.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well those are such important measures, and we’re so grateful for the work that you did to get the STOP Act passed. Now earlier this year, Rep. Murphy, North Carolina lawmakers again focused their attention to this crisis through the passage of the HOPE Act. Tell us a little bit about the HOPE Act also if you would, and how it builds upon the measures that you’ve already described that were implemented through the STOP Act the year before.
GREG MURPHY: It’s a complement to it John, it’s kind of the second chapter, as I like to call it, of the book that we’re writing. The STOP Act worked on legally prescribed medications, and the HOPE Act is working to cut down the illegal distribution of legally prescribed medications. But also to cut down the distribution of illegal drugs themselves. In doing so what we’re trying to do is help our law enforcement agencies, give them better tools to quicker access to criminal records, to illegal activities. We have gangs that come in from out of state that come in and flood cities with fraudulent prescriptions, and they’re in and out of that city in 24 hours. The present process for law enforcement officers to help investigate and get arrests in these crimes takes far longer than 24 hours. So what we’re really trying to do is help our law enforcement get a handle on illegal activities to try to again combat this crisis from just another angle.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well that’s important. Now last year, Rep. Murphy, there were four North Carolina cities: Wilmington, Hickory, Jacksonville and Fayetteville that were among the top 20 in the nation for opioid abuse. Has North Carolina’s ranking changed at all since the Legislature started taking action in this area, or do you think it’s going to take time for us to see positive results from the implementation of these bills?
GREG MURPHY: It’s going to take time. I’ve not seen any recent data on ranking but I do know that unfortunately despite thee efforts the number of overdoses by opioids still continues to climb. There’s a lot of factors I believe in that, I believe a lot of factors having to do with the destruction of the family, the ease of access to these illicit fentanyls, the fact that these drug pushers are mixing drugs in such a dangerous fashion that’s it’s horrible for the user. So this is not going to be a battle that we’re going to easily win. I’m hopeful that we can turn the tables around in a decade, but it may even take longer than that.
JOHN RUSTIN: This for many citizens across our state, and across our nation, has become a very personal issue. Many of us have known of or are very close to people who’ve become victimized by this kind of addiction. Rep. Murphy, I know you were motivated to address this issue not only because you are a lawmaker and a physician, but also because you are a husband, a father and a compassionate man of faith. So what can family members and friends who suspect a loved one may be falling into a drug addiction do to help them?
GREG MURPHY: John I think that’s going to be the biggest key. That’s going to be the biggest key. This is education, education, conversation and conversation. There are plenty of places that people can go to seek help, however they have to want to do that and that’s the difficult part. The other part is trying to get them to have health insurance; a big problem is 80 percent of individuals who come into our emergency department overdosed don’t have any health insurance. So we have to work on those. But a lot of good families, very very good families, are having their children wiped out by this disease, or having to put them in treatment. So, it’s not being good, bad, or indifferent, it’s a nondiscriminatory disease and it’s going to take God’s love and God’s intervention for us to correct.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know you mentioned earlier about the stigma of opioid addiction. Talk a little bit about that if you would, and what awareness is important for the public to have about this.
GREG MURPHY: I believe that people have to understand that addiction is a disease, it’s not a choice. Now yes, there are some people that chose to take drugs illicitly, without having been hooked on prescription medication and made some poor choices, but to be honest with you John they need our love just as much as anybody else, they need our pity and our help, nor our scorn. And so the stigma that these people should just kind of “snap out of it” is just totally unrealistic and ignorance of the problem of the disease of addiction. And so we have to understand that it’s going to be a lifelong struggle, and it’s one that we actually as a community, not only as a faith community need to assist with, but as a state community, because financially it is just draining our state. In 2016 the opioid crisis cost this country over $500 billion in treatment and all the other things. No only is it a faith problem but it’s also a financial problem. So it’s just a conversation that we do not need to put down and say that it’s just somebody’s fault, we need to give these people assistance and help, and our prayers.
JOHN RUSTIN: So Rep. Murphy, it seems like we all have a role to play in addressing this crisis from reaching out in love and care to those who have been victimized by it, who are battling with an addiction, and also being responsible just individuals if we have access opioid drugs that have been prescribed to us laying around the house, so to speak, to dispose of those properly, and to make sure that they are not around to be found by individuals who may be battling with this kind of addiction. What words of hope and encouragement and suggestion can you offer to our listeners who really take the conversation that we’ve been having to heart?
GREG MURPHY: Well I think there is help out there, but it’s going to take a communal effort, it’s going to take a lot of love, and it’s going to take dedication. This disease is not like a urinary tract infection where you treat it with an antibiotic and it just goes away, this is a lifelong struggle, addiction is a lifelong struggle and people have to realize that. And, they have to be realizing that it’s a person underneath, it’s not just someone whose a drug addict, it’s a person and that person just like any other person on our earth, is deserving of God’s love and mercy. That’s what we have to do, we have to show God’s love and God’s mercy.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well Rep. Murphy, we’re just about out of time for this week but before we go I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to access information that may be helpful if they, or someone they care about is struggling with an opioid or drug addiction.
GREG MURPHY: The best site that I think has the most range of resources, if you go onto the website of the North Carolina Health and Human Services. They have a very good website that can show certain places where families and individuals can get assistance, get involved in recovery programs. That’s the best overall place that I can recommend people go to.
JOHN RUSTIN: Great. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website Dr. Murphy mentioned, which is dedicated to the opioid epidemic is www.ncdhhs.gov/opioid/epidemic.
Well Rep. Greg Murphy, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today, and for your incredibly important work that you’re doing not only as a physician and a member of the state Legislature, but also as a husband and a father and an involved member of your community in Greenville, North Carolina. We’re so grateful for your leadership, especially on this issue of tackling the opioid crisis that’s plaguing our state and nation. Thank you so much.
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