Behind The Front Lines Of East Tennessee’s Opioid Crisis

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Opioid Addiction In Roane County

Opioid addiction is a public health emergency in East Tennessee, health officials say. Despite increased enforcement, data show the state has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country. Doctors in 2015 prescribed opioids more than 7.8 million times – or more than one prescription "for every man, woman and child" in Tennessee, The Tennessean reports. 

Among the hardest hit areas in East Tennessee is Roane County. It's a small community of lush rolling hills and Great Smoky Mountain views about an hour from Knoxville, where nearly everybody knows someone who has overdosed from opioids. 

Addiction is changing this close-knit Southern Appalachian community’s way of life. 

The Role Of Geography

A key factor driving the opioid epidemic in Roane County is its location along several interstate highways known to be popular with cross-country drug traffickers. "The Appalachia region is arguably the epicenter of this crisis," say federal officials, who include many parts of East Tennessee in the so-called Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. 

"East Tennessee is in the crosshairs of the drug traffic," says Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton.

 In this region, drugs are easier to find than addiction treatment. Many communities in East Tennessee lack adequate access to doctors, mental health or addiction services. Waiting lists for detox are long, and without help many struggling addicts overdose, die or end up behind bars before treatment beds open up. 

Calls for change have grown louder in recent years. East Tennessee community leaders increasingly want more drug prevention and treatment options, and more alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug addicts in Appalachia.

Homegrown Solutions

In February, 2016, Roane County launched a new drug treatment court officials hoped would help reduce the overdose death rate and help struggling addicts who commit crimes overcome their addiction and stay out of jail for good. 

TruckBeat documented the first day of Roane County's drug treatment court and followed the story over the next five months. Here are three stories from that ongoing series:

Sleeping On Boats: Drugs And Mental Illness Drive Jail Overcrowding


Nearly all Roane County inmates are locked up for drug-related crimes. 

The system is maxed out. Now, officials are seeking alternatives to incarceration and more addiction treatment to ease overcrowding. 

"Coming to jail is not the answer for mental illness and drug addiction."

In this story, we meet Roane County police and probation officers, who say the opioid epidemic has changed the way they see the criminal justice system – and themselves.

Pink Clouds: Inside East Tennessee’s Opioid Epidemic


One night with the Roane County Sheriff's Department drug task force.

"I'm very proud of the way that we handle it. We are definitely a tight group of people."

In this story, we follow sheriff's deputies through their nightly rounds in East Tennessee. Teams of officers check in on drug court participants and operate a pre-dawn drug trafficking checkpoint on the front lines of the region's opioid epidemic.

I Wasn’t Trying To Kill Him: Vince Brown’s Story


What's it like to have an addicted child? Where do you turn for help?

In this story, we meet Vince Brown. His son Michael was a professional baseball pitcher before an injury left him with a fierce addiction to prescription painkillers.

"I think about it every day, a thousand times a day. What could I have done different?"

Vince's story reflects the struggle of millions of American families across the country today.

Video Credits

Producer and Director: Jess Mador

Editor and Cinematographer: Phil Batta 

Music by: Sam Keenan 

TruckBeat is part of Localore: Finding America, a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio.

Jess Mador

Jess Mador is the creator of TruckBeat for WUOT. She's an award-winning public radio and multimedia journalist who has produced stories for news organizations around the country, including Minnesota Public Radio, NPR News and PBS member stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Phil Batta

Phil Batta is an award-winning cinematographer and director who specializes in creating short-form documentaries and visually rich multiplatform media for social impact. His work appears on PBS, The New Yorker, UK Channel 4, ITN, The Guardian, ABC7, CNN and ITVS. He's also shot and edited projects honored as official selections at international film festivals and exhibitions. Batta is currently directing two documentaries exploring youth social justice and gender equality. 

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