362 Miles In, Cowboy Camping, Talking with Erwin’s Chief of Police

362 Miles In, Cowboy Camping, Talking with Erwin’s Chief of Police
May 3, 2018 Heather Starbuck

“We know these people, we know their families, it’s a small town… nobody is immune, I’ve got four kids and I worry about them all the time.”

– Erwin Chief of Police, Regan Tilson

It’s 8:20 AM and I’m currently laying here on my sleeping pad out on this bald 12 miles out of Erwin called ‘Beauty Gap’ after having the best camping experience on trail yet. After taking my first zero in a few weeks to rest up my blistered and cut up feet, Theo and I climbed up for 12 miles to try and get to this here scenic bald that half the trail fam had scoped out shortly before us. For some reason, even after a break, I was feeling real sluggish and almost stopped to stealth camp about a mile out, but I’m glad I treated on to experience the majestic sun set and sky plastered with layers and layers of stars.

Looking up at the stars last night, I couldn’t help but wonder over and over where in those Matt is now, thinking about how little we truly know, or could ever know within the confines of our human perception.

It’d been a full 24 hours in Erwin. I loaded up on Mexican, did all my trail chores, way overpacked on the food resupply but everything looked so delicious with hiker hunger, and walked from one edge of town to another in an attempt to meet with two people working to stop the epidemic here in Erwin. Eventually, I was able to talk to both, gaining a deeper insight not only to what they have been experiencing here, but also to the problem as a whole.

In the afternoon, Erwin’s Chief of Police, Regan Tilson, spoke with me, sharing his insight on the pill crisis that has taken ahold of their community over the last decade. He continued to reiterate how close to home it was, that the addicted are not faceless, “we know these people, we know their families, it’s a small town… nobody is immune, I’ve got four kids and I worry about them all the time”. He emphasized that people think it’s just lower income affected, but it’s not “it’s everyone”. The issue most pervasive here, is not heroin, but rather opioid pills, to which he says the proliferation is “unbelievable”. Hammering that point home, at a traffic stop altercation just the day before, they’d taken 12 prescriptions from one person, 12.

But Tilson and his team are fighting the epidemic head on. This was actually the first county in East Tennessee to distribute Narcan to emergency responders and officers in order to save lives. He says ultimately that is their number one goal, to save as many lives as they can. It took some work to get here though, originally liability for officers created red tape for them to be able to have and use Narcan. The catalyst for change came after a child got into his father’s Suboxone and they had to wait on an ambulance while his life was on the line. After which, the department fought for the ability to use Narcan themselves and liabilities later lifted through reforms and help from the health department. The first save after this was an elderly person, and after that Tilson said the community has been onboard with the distribution and Narcan training.

Tilson uses law enforcement not to crack down on those struggling with addiction, but to get people off the streets, into treatment and the help they need. One young woman struggled for years with pill addiction but got clean when she became pregnant for her child. Years later, out of nowhere it seemed, she relapsed and Tilson told her, you have two options here, rehab or jail – to which she went to rehab. Out of treatment, she stayed in contact with him, but sadly eventually the contact ceased and she was found again amidst a drug deal and lost custody of her child. Far from immune to these relapses, Tilson keeps hope stating, “we don’t have all success stories, but we have some, we’ve just got to keep digging”. Parents he says, call with relief when their department find and take in their addicted children, often saying “thank god you arrested them, at least we know where they are tonight, at least we know they are safe”.

Erwin, like many towns across America, is still feeling the deep reverberations of the prescription pill craze that started well over a decade ago. He says DUI’s are up, arrests are up and pills are the heavy cause. Narcotic violations in Erwin average four or five drug arrests a month, up from one a month just a few years ago. They don’t have a drug unit in their small town department, everyone is working it. At the end of day, they want to help and save those afflicted but “it seems like we hit a brick wall everywhere we turn, recovery centers can’t get them in, there’s too much of a wait”. They will send addicts to Dawson to treatment but they only can get 4-5 days there, which is not enough to help. For those on Suboxone, the costs are astronomical he says. Insurance often won’t cover Suboxone so those seeking treatment from it will be looking at anywhere from $300 – $800 per month, often forcing them to turn to crime to get the funds.

Though the challenge is astronomical, and their team is a small town department, they are making big strides against the odds it seems. They’ve set up a drug take back program to keep pills out of family medicine cabinets and the local water sources… Tilson says they fill up often, once receiving 200 mortars (pill crushers) in just a month. Tilson has spear headed an education program for youth to show them what these drugs have done and what they will do, even before high school (in an age appropriate way). To which he says they won’t see the dividends for a few years, but that’s when they hope for a change in the knowledge and awareness of the community’s youth.

I asked Tilson about handling the dealers who aggressively push drugs on vulnerable addicts causing overdoses, telling him the story of Matt’s ‘friend’ Shane who followed him across state lines and harassed him for years in his recovery wanting his user buddy back. Showing up at his work, calling, texting (Matt even had his number blocked for a long time) guilt tripping and despite myself threatening to go to the police on him and twice chasing him off our property, he finally got Matt to cave and use again, the last time leading to Matt’s overdose. Tilson says it is extremely challenging to prosecute, even if they dealt the lethal dose knowing an addict was in recovery. He did the impossible though, and through an extensive case took a woman off the streets who was dealing pills leading to the deaths of two young men in Erwin. Prosecution is hard, and rare, he says, mainly because people don’t want to talk. Many families are ashamed and do not want to come forward after an overdose loss, and they especially do not want to go through the difficulty of a court case. And so, predators continue to walk the streets endangering our loved ones who are trying to get their lives back on track.

Though Erwin, a town made up heavily of hard working “salt of the earth” people, was a target for big pharma and the pill mill industry, strides are being made, and people like Tilson are on the front line fighting the epidemic, maintaining hope, and saving lives.

I was originally going to write this post and include all the information I learned from Christy, head of the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition but realized that there was so much eye opening knowledge and perspective just from Chief Tilson that I think I’m going to leave this post off here, and let this all sink in, telling her story next.

Hopefully hiking to another bald tonight, cowboy camping is definitely Theo’s and my new jam.

Thanks for following, much love.


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