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Boone PD: Drug Overdoses Take At Least Six Lives in 2015, Prescription Meds Prove Deadly

By Jesse Wood

Recently released autopsy and toxicology results of an 18-year-old who died in Boone in May 2015 reveal another drug overdose death, the sixth, in fact, for the Town of Boone last year.

John Dakota Merriss, 18, was found unresponsive near a dumpster at an apartment complex off of Robin Lane in Boone last spring and was taken to the hospital, where he was dead upon arrival.

Toxicology results reveal that he died from “acute alprazolam and tramadol toxicity” and his autopsy report listed physical evidence found by law enforcement as “liquid Xanax.” Alprazolam is available in prescription form as Xanax and Tramadol is an opioid pain medication.

Earlier this month, the Boone Police Department announced that it had closed an investigation into another young death, a 20-year-old Appalachian State University student named John Dallas Bunch, IV. Bunch’s cause of death was listed as “acetyl fentanyl and alprazolam toxicity.”

Fentanyl is also an opioid that’s significantly stronger than heroin, according to Boone Police Lt. Chris Hatton, who added that deadly prescription drugs are proving to be just as prevalent – if not more prevalent – than what some might describe as the common street drugs.

“If you look at the toxicology reports that are coming back, they don’t say heroin. They don’t say cocaine. They don’t say marijuana,” Hatton said. “They say prescription medications.”

The painkiller fentanyl, if you remember, was associated with an overdose epidemic in Chicago, where at one point 74 people overdosed in 72 hours last year. Heroin laced with fentanyl was to blame.

When this epidemic was making headlines last fall, the High Country experienced a spurt of young deaths that looked drug related and “threw us into a panic,” Hatton said, thinking that a laced, deadly drug like fentanyl was floating around town.

Though fentanyl has made its way to the High Country – as one of the autopsies revealed – Hatton said that an investigation didn’t reveal their worst fears.

“Our investigation showed us that wasn’t what was going on,” Hatton said of the potential “bad batch of drugs” on the streets of Boone.

Still, the national and regional trends are a concern as they filter down to the local level.

Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford recently drafted a memo to the Boone Town Council for the upcoming retreats, which occur annually before the budget season begins. In his memo, which was drafted before the latest autopsy and toxicology results were released, Crawford noted the drug overdose deaths.

“In 2015, our investigators were called on to investigate 12 deaths. At least 5 of these cases are expected to be caused by drug overdoses. This, of course, is not a good statistic for our town, and we are working closely with our sister agencies and community partners to curb this trend. Unfortunately, we are being told that this trend will likely continue on a national level due to increase of heroin usage that is now becoming an epidemic in many cities,” Crawford wrote.

See the graphs below. These come from a NCLEG report to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee titled, “NC Needs To Strengthen Its System for Monitoring and Preventing the Abuse of Prescribed Controlled Substances.”


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