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Two key figures in the fight

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Doug Doughtie and Wally Overman are major characters in the saga of drug abuse and narcotics trafficking in Dare County.

            Both are elected officials and come from small rural towns. But the similarities seem to end there.

            J.D. "Doug" Doughtie is the sheriff of Dare County, a man of bear-like proportions. He is outgoing, gregarious, and generally good-humored. Wally Overman has a soft-spoken manner and a generally low-keyed demeanor. Appointed to the Dare Board of Commissioners in 2013, he was elected in 2014 and is on the ballot again this year.

            Both Doughtie and Overman independently came to share a passion that would help change the war on drugs and substance abuse in the Outer Banks.

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Dare County's Battle Against Drug Abuse

The Sheriff

            When it comes to drugs, Doughtie has had a long street-level look at the problem.  And when he ran for sheriff in 2010, ridding Dare County of drugs topped his platform in the campaign. He won handily and took office declaring his own drug war.

            Doughtie hails from Ahoskie, a small town of around 5,000 people in rural Hertford County that was known in the 1980s for its crack cocaine problem. That's where Doughtie cut his teeth in law enforcement.

            One area that benefitted from Doughtie's handiwork was around 1st and Maple streets, a strip of saloons, juke joints and pool halls. And drugs. And fights. "The people who lived in the residential neighborhood behind were good folk," Doughtie says. “They deserved better."

            "He got his reputation there," says Steve Hoggard, who worked with Doughtie on the Ahoskie Police force, and later became the department's chief.

            "Judges would issue orders barring convicted dealers from ever going back to that area, with the stern warning, 'if you do, I'll send Lt. Doughtie in there after you'," Hoggard recalls. "It always worked."

            "But know, for all his toughness as a police officer," says Hoggard, who became the sheriff's deputy until recently retiring, "Sheriff Doughtie cares about people more than you might imagine. It reflects his Christian ideals."

            In 1989, Doughtie came to Dare County to be a deputy sheriff. There were no substance abuse treatment centers like PORT/New Horizons. The was no narcotics enforcement effort to speak of, save for the unfortunate driver who got pulled over by a town police officer for a broken tail light and got busted for the telltale odor of marijuana. It would be another 10 years before the sheriff's office even put together a two-man narcotics team.

            But drugs were here. In Dare County, you could buy powder cocaine, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, and always marijuana. And it wasn't too long before crack cocaine crashed onto the scene.

            In 2006, Doughtie retired from the sheriff's office, but that didn't mean the end of his work with drugs. In fact, it expanded it. He became a school resource officer in the county. His focus turned to kids, inhalants and cough medicine.

            And by the time a judge swore in Doughtie as sheriff, Dare County was in the grip of the opioid pills epidemic. Heroin use was spinning out of control. Related crimes, such as burglaries and theft, were up. Addiction rates soared. The accumulated effects infected whole neighborhoods.  

            "All the law enforcement departments were seeing the same problems, tryin' to tackle it as best we could," Doughtie says. "I got to thinkin', there's got to be a better way.”

            Not long after taking office, Doughtie called together his command staff, including then-Sgt. Kevin Duprey, head of the department's small narcotics unit.

            "He asked us pointedly what we thought about the drug problem in the county," Duprey says. "We had a very long talks about that."

            Doughtie discussed creating a county-wide narcotics team with town police chiefs, tapping into resources provided not only by the sheriff's office, but by most of the barrier island's individual town police departments.

            Today, 11 members make up the Narcotics Task Force, a captain, sergeant and four deputies from the Sheriff's Office, a man each from the Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk police departments, an agent each from the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement, a branch that enforces state laws, such as alcohol beverage control, and controlled substances. And depending on operations, the task force ranks can swell to as much as 15 members.

            During its nearly six years of existence, the Task Force has accumulated nearly 500 drug arrests, driven out a dangerous United Bloods Nation drug organization and focused as well on drug dealers from Portsmouth, Norfolk or Elizabeth City.

            The Dare County Narcotics Task Force appears to have few parallels in North Carolina. Donnie Varnell, recently retired agent from the SBI, spent almost 30 years in statewide criminal investigations, most in narcotics. "There have been a few counties that have put together task forces, but none as durable and effective as the one in Dare County," he says. 

            "The task force works unbelievably hard," Doughtie says. "They're a phenomenal bunch of guys." He then leans forward in his swivel chair, his frame engulfing the small, sparse office.

            "But I'll tell you this," he says. "We're never gonna arrest our way out of this problem."

The Commissioner

            Remarkably, Wally Overman says he went through childhood and college without so much as seeing an illicit drug.

            His only close encounter came early in his career in the textile business, during a seminar in Clemson. It came at the end of a long day of meetings, at an evening gathering to let off steam, with beer as the main attraction. Standing with a group of fellow businessmen, the guy next to him tapped his shoulder and thrust his hand in front of Overman's face. Tucked between the man's fingers was a joint.  

            "I didn't know what to do with it," he remembers. "I just passed it on to the guy next to me and got the hell out of there."

            Overman's engagement with drugs came years later. As a newly appointed County Commissioner, Overman set out to learn the ropes of his new job by attending the meetings of all the boards and committees he could cram into his schedule.

            One of those was the Dare County Children's Collaborative, a program that addressed the mental health and substance abuse needs of youth.

            "In the very first meeting I attended," Overman recalls, "this woman named Michelle stated that counselors were now working with about one hundred and twenty school-aged kids who either were directly using drugs or knew family members or friends using drugs."

            Michelle was Michelle Hawbaker, program coordinator for PORT/New Horizons, the only extensive substance abuse treatment facility in Dare County, and one that provided in-school substance abuse counseling. 

            Overman tossed the numbers around in his head. "It came out to about four classrooms of kids. It didn't seem possible."  The more meetings Overman attended, the more his astonishment turned to frustration.

            "It became apparent to me that the county had a number of good organizations that worked with substance abuse in adults and children, shared the same interest, but they weren't talking with each other or sharing information, ideas, what is working and what is not. I kept asking this person, that person, whoever would listen, ‘Why can't we come together and pool our knowledge and resources?’"

            Overman finally got his answer. In February 2014, at another meeting of the Children's Collaborative, Dr. Richard Martin, a local private substance abuse counselor, former educator and committee member, turned in Overman's direction and said, "Wally, you're the person who will have to do this."

            Martin remembers that moment. "It was simple, really. Wally is a county commissioner, he has clout and he helps hold the purse strings. So, when he says to people. 'Let's sit around the table,' people sit."

            The people at the table became the Dare County Substance Abuse Prevention and Education Task Force.

            At first it was focused primarily on kids, with representation from organizations such as PORT/New Horizons and Dare CASA (Coalition Against Substance Abuse) that have a focus supporting youth alcohol and substance prevention and education programs. Another was Peer Power, a program by the Dare County Department of Public Health that trains high school seniors to teach middle and elementary school kids about living a healthy life style and making good decisions.

            Overman had a vision of these people around the table sharing ideas, formulating a plan together for attacking the drug abuse problem and pooling resources.

             It didn't happen. Not at first.

            "Although we had very passionate, smart and experienced people, they weren't comfortable with each other," he recalls. People still wanted to protect their turf. They were providing similar services and applying for some of the same grants. The sense of competition outweighed collaboration.”

            Gradually, people began to build trust, get to know each other. It took nearly a year, but the vision finally took shape. "Thankfully, the table has gotten full, much beyond what I had envisioned," Overman says.

            The substance abuse task force, co-chaired by Roxana Ballinger, education and outreach director for the Dare Public Health Department, has expanded its original focus on youth to include adults. It now takes on issues, such as prescription drug abuse, providing Naloxone, a drug that can save the lives of those who overdose, to police and first responders, drug drop-off initiatives and supporting substance abuse counseling to county detention center inmates.

            In the fall of 2015, the task force and Dare CASA held a substance abuse summit at Jennette's Pier to raise awareness of the problem. More than 160 people turned out.

            "Wally brought us all together, the whole community," Michelle Hawbaker says. "And it has made a huge difference."

Next Week: The law enforcement officers on the front lines.

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