Opioid Epidemic in Mecklenburg County: Rising Overdoses and Drug Seizure

A sizeable drug seizure took place in Charlotte’s North Tryon division recently. Around three kilos of fentanyl, a pill press and a kilo press were confiscated, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Maj. Luke Sell, an expert on opioid use in Charlotte. The seizure is the latest indicator of a growing opioid crisis in Mecklenburg County.

Why it matters: Overdoses are up in Mecklenburg County. Nearly 140 people have died from drug overdoses so far this year, a 20% increase from last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police reported during a press conference in August.  

Around 48% of people who utilized the emergency department for opioid-related overdose services in 2023 were Black based on a report provided to QCity Metro by Dr. Travis Hales, an assistant professor of social work at UNC Charlotte. Black people make up 34% of the Mecklenburg County population.

There have been 638 emergency department visits for opioid overdoses in 2023. That’s an 18% increase from 2022, which had 538 visits, according to the report.

One concern for CMPD is unknown amounts of fentanyl being mixed in with less lethal drugs, such as Oxycontin. 

“If people understand that they’re taking fentanyl, that’s one thing,” Sell said. “If people don’t understand what they’re taking, that’s horrifying. You don’t know if you’re taking a lethal dose of fentanyl or you’re just getting very, very little.” 

Fentanyl is also generally much cheaper than other drugs on the illegal market. 

“It’s cheaper, it’s easier,” Sell said. “So, the profit margins are big.”

The low cost of fentanyl may be one reason it is being frequently used to cut – what dealers do to increase the volume or enhance the effect of a substance or other drugs. 

Unlike past drug epidemics, fentanyl use is a concern for all areas of Charlotte. 

“It’s not a Center City problem,” Sell said. “It’s not a North Tryon problem. It’s not a south Charlotte problem. It’s all over. Just about everywhere in the city, we’re having overdoses.” 

Another concern is that many drug dealers are utilizing technology, such as apps, to distribute their drugs.

“It’s a different retail environment than it was [in the past,]” Sell said. “Now you might make a phone call and there may be a meet somewhere, or you use a social media platform, and you set something up.” 

This makes tracking down drug dealers more difficult, he said.

The fentanyl is also being branded by dealers using different colors, what Sell calls “rainbow fentanyl.” The United States Drug Enforcement Administration said the use of brightly-colored fentanyl appears to be a new method to make the drug “look like candy” in an attempt to target children and young people.

Sell says any pills not directly from a doctor or pharmacy should be immediately disposed of. Mecklenburg County residents can use local drop boxes for proper disposal.

“If you don’t get that pill from your doctor, or your pharmacy, nobody should ever take that pill,” Sell said.

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