RALEIGH — Rep. Wayne Sasser is starting his second term in the North Carolina General Assembly, representing state House District 67, which covers most of Stanly County and portions of Cabarrus and Rowan counties. Both in his first two-year term and in the first few weeks of his second, Sasser is showing a focus on tackling one of the nation’s, and Stanly County’s, most difficult crises — opioid addiction and resulting overdose deaths.
In the 2021-22 session, Sasser is already the primary sponsor of three bills that directly attack the opioid epidemic. The first, House Bill 93, requires a prescription for Naloxone to go along with certain opioid prescriptions, specifically if they are for high doses or are going to those at risk of overdose because of past history.
Naloxone, which is sold under the product name Narcan, is an “opioid agonist” that can reverse an overdose and save someone’s life before the drug completely shuts down their cardiovascular system.
“I call it the Lazarus drug, because you can just be graveyard dead laying there, no pulse, not breathing and give them Narcan and they come back to life,” Sasser told SCJ in a Feb. 27 interview. “It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. And it’s a safe drug. You or I can take Narcan, and we wouldn’t know we did anything. It’s just a blocking agent that blocks the receptors that opioids attack.”
According to Sasser, there would be some required training for the person, so they could show their care giver or partner how to deliver the Naloxone, “Because, I’m sorry, when you overdose, you’re not going to give yourself Narcan.”
He said during COVID-19, more people are using opioids by themselves and don’t have a partner to deliver the shot in the event of an overdose, increasing the likelihood of overdoses.
The second bill is House Bill 96, which allows pharmacists, which was Sasser’s profession, to administer more injections than they currently do. Two of the proposed new drugs are for managing opioid addictions with monthly injections.
“So what happens if you take those long-acting monthly injectables and you use heroin, oxycontin, or any of the opioids, you get no high out of it,” Sasser said. “Basically it’s a really strong deterrent if you can get it in people every month.”
In addition, he said the bill includes monthly antipsychotic injections for those struggling with severe mental illnesses. These two groups, Sasser said, are difficult to get into a doctor’s office because they’re resistant to things like being in a formal environment and to making and keeping appointments.
“The big deal with those patients [those struggling with mental health or drug addiction] is getting them in the doctor’s office to get the shot in their arm,” he said. “It’s about making a very important type of medication more accessible to the patient.”
But because these injections are currently done by health care providers, Sasser says there’s been some pushback, which he called a “turf war.” But he said the important thing is doing what is best for the patients.
The last of the three bills, House Bill 180, simply declares Aug. 31 to be Overdose Awareness Day.
“These people are just addicted, and they don’t maybe have the choice that we think they have,” Sasser said about those who end up overdosing. “And they want to push that limit; they want to push that high right up to the point that it kills them. And we know how many of them guess wrong, don’t we?”
He said the STOP Act, passed by the state legislature in 2017, was largely successful in reducing opioid prescriptions, with the number of prescriptions down over 50% and the number of actual tablets dispensed down 60%. This has occurred because doctors are being encouraged to prescribe other pain medications which are not Schedule 2 narcotics.
“This is, for the last five or six years, where my focus has been towards the end of my career,” Sasser said on why he has sponsored so many bills on the issue in both his terms in office.
Sasser said he’s worked with Bridge to Recover in Stanly County on treatment and has spent time at national conferences, including in Austin, Texas, with legislators from other states to hear how they are dealing with the crisis.
He said a lot of this motivation was because of what he’s seen locally in Stanly County as a pharmacist.
“I think it was two or three years ago, five out of 12 months, Stanly County was No. 1 in the number of overdoses that went through the emergency room,” he said. “There’s a lot of illegal opioid use in Stanly County, so it’s just one of my passions, and I think we need to have these conversations. We need to not forget that people are dying.”