Originally in Hickory Record

October 7, 2018

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein called on legislators to take additional action to address both the state’s rape kit backlog and opioid problem during an interview with the Hickory Daily Record on Friday.

Stein dropped by Hickory as he was traveling across the state. Stein also discussed the state’s case against former Catawba County Sheriff’s Capt. Jason Reid, and plans for responding to data breaches.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the rape kit backlog:  “It (a new $2 million federal grant) will help us take an important step forward but it’s nowhere near sufficient.

“We estimate that with the grant funds we received, we’ll be able to outsource about 1,400 kits. So, that’s about 10 percent of the total pool of untested kits. We are going to turn over every stone to look for funds. We’re going to talk to the governor’s crime commission and we’re hopeful we can get some funds from them.

“But ultimately we will never be able to solve the problem of these untested kits without the Legislature stepping up in a meaningful way.

“When the Legislature asked us to take count…that’s when we learned this spring that there were 15,000 kits that were not tested.

“So I made three recommendations. I asked them to create a tracking system so that on a going forward basis we would never run into this problem again where we don’t know.

“The second thing I asked them to do was to create a select committee to tackle the thorny questions about what protocols should local law enforcement have when they get a kit in their possession. When do they keep it? When do they send it on for testing? And I think they’re going to be making their recommendations at the beginning of December to the Legislature.

“The third thing I asked was for an appropriation so we could outsource the kits. We at the State Crime Lab  simply do not have the capacity to test all the old kits as well as the kits that come in. Already since the new tracking system has come online, which was Monday, so as of yesterday morning there had been five kits submitted.

“It was disappointment, frankly, that the Legislature appropriated no money, but the crime lab folks are very entrepreneurial. We learned about this grant through the U.S. Department of Justice and we secured it and yesterday we announced the award. And we’re really excited to get started on that.”

On tackling the opioid problem: “The solution has to be comprehensive because this problem is so deep-seated and it’s very complex.

“We need to work on prevention strategies. So one is to change the prescribing practices, and we passed the STOP Act last year which will reduce overprescribing. And we’ve seen a pretty sharp decline in the number of opioids prescribed, so that’s a positive.

“The other thing we need to do is educate the public about opioids. A lot of people, if you ask them about opioids, they will know it’s bad but they won’t know necessarily that Percocet or Oxycontin is an opioid. And they may not understand the relationship between Percocet and heroin, that chemically it’s the same compound.”

“So I’m working in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services and other state agencies on a public education campaign that we hope to roll out in the coming weeks or months.

“Treatment, we have to do a better job helping people who are addicted. Only one out of six people with addiction gets treatment.

“That means 84 percent of people with a chronic disease are not getting health care, and we’re the richest country in the world.

“The single most important act the state of North Carolina could take would be to expand Medicaid, to accept the federal government’s offer to return our tax money to us to provide health insurance for 500,000 of our neighbors who don’t have it.

“The third thing is…enforcement. We have to be very aggressive going after the drug traffickers that bring poison into our state, and I’m working closely with law enforcement to do that.

“But we also need to have new strategies in law enforcement where we try to move more people who suffer from addiction out of the criminal justice system and into the health care system.”

On the harm reduction approach to the opioid problem:  “Harm reduction is another important strategy for tackling this problem because if we don’t keep alive there’s no chance they will ever get healthy. “

“And there’s a young man I met in Greensboro named Chase Holleman. He overdosed on heroin three times and each time was brought to life by Naloxone.

“Well, he got clean. He got his undergraduate degree at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, his Master’s of Social Work at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now the Naloxone coordinator for Guilford County, trying to save other people’s lives.

“It’s an incredibly inspiring story. So harm reduction is an essential part of the solution.”

On the state’s case against former Catawba County Sheriff’s Capt. Jason Reid: “Well, the case was referred to my office by a local prosecutor.

“I have a group of prosecutors who take cases when they’re referred by a local district attorney. We brought charges  and that case is in litigation and really at this point that’s all I can say.

“When the case came to my office, I handed it off to career prosecutors and they are doing what the facts and the law compel them to do.”

On the existence of other investigations into the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office:  “I am not (aware of any investigations), but if I were I couldn’t say.”

On data privacy breaches: “I’m getting a letter out today to Facebook to demand answers as to what happened and what they’re going to do to make sure it never happens again.

“Meanwhile, we already were looking at Facebook because of the Cambridge Analytica breach from last year.

“There was the Equifax breach from last year. We’re investigating Equifax and trying to see if we need to bring a lawsuit or we can achieve a resolution. That affected 148 million Americans, including 5 million North Carolinians. That’s two out of every three adults in this state.

“One thing that all these breaches led me to do was to take a close look at our identity theft laws to see if they are adequate and there are ways they can be strengthened.

“And so I’m partnering with Rep. Jason Saine from Lincoln County to work on legislation to... impose a burden on businesses to do a better job with our data and... to give consumers more tools quicker when these breaches occur.”