By Joe Killian

Guilford County Sheriff's Deputy Matt Stalls looked on Monday as Gov. Pat McCrory signed into a law a bill that will make life-saving overdose medication available state-wide without a prescription.

Stalls has seen first hand the difference Naloxone, also called Narcan, has made in cases of overdose from drugs such as heroin and Oxycodone -- opiods whose abuse continues to climb nationwide. Recently Stalls himself had to administer the drugs in two local overdose cases within four hours.

"Both of them are alive today," Stalls said in an interview Monday. "But there are a lot of people who aren't, especially with the highly potent heroin that we're seeing today."

Since first responders across the state were first equipped with the drug in 2013, they estimate it has saved the lives of more than 3,000 people.

Senate Bill 734, which McCrory signed into law at the Guilford County Sheriff's Office, creates a standing prescription under the name of Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director. Anyone can go to his or her local pharmacy and get the drug -- anonymously and without a personal prescription -- to have on hand in case of an overdose.

Maryland and Pennsylvania already have such standing orders, but the move is a first for North Carolina. Once controversial, this method of dealing with overdoses now has broad bipartisan support. N.C. Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) and Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford), both supporters of the bill, were on hand Monday.

"We're beginning to get to a place where we realize that addiction and mental health are really health issues, not just law-enforcement issues," Robinson said. "These are critical problems -- people are dying every day of heroin overdoses and overdoses of prescription medication. And we've got to start by saving those lives, then getting them the treatment they need."

Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes agreed. At a news conference after the signing, Barnes estimated between 80 and 85 percent of prisoners in the Guilford County jail are dealing with substance abuse.

Barnes said he has heard criticism that making Naloxone available without a prescription will encourage addicts to go on abusing drugs, knowing they can do it more safely. That couldn't be more off-base, Barnes said.

"What we're doing is saving lives," he said.

McCrory called heroin addiction a "terrible epidemic," which he said was a legacy of the society's misunderstanding of addiction. That goes all the way back to his own youth in Guilford County, he said, when as a student at Ragsdale High School he lost classmates to drug and alcohol abuse.

"I got lucky at Ragsdale in 10th and 11th grade," McCrory said. "I could have been one of those victims. Thankfully, I didn't have the addiction gene, or I wouldn't be here today."

Flanked by lawmakers, medical professionals, law-enforcement officers and first responders, McCrory said the state has a long way to go in dealing with addiction issues. More drug treatment courts and veteran courts are needed to be sure that those who need treatment don't instead just end up in jail, he said.

"Our first goal is to get the money to deal with this addiction and mental-health crisis," McCrory said. "It's hard because people don't see it -- it's hidden."

But the problem is so widespread, the governor said, that most people are touched by addiction, whether they realize it or not.

"I have met very few people who don't know someone who has an addiction problem," McCrory said. "If they don't know someone, it probably means the person in their life is hiding it."

(c)2016 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)