KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Eighty to 90 percent of crime in Knox County has a link to drugs, according to Knox County District Attorney, Charme Allen.

That’s whether those crimes are related directly to drug possession, drug dealing, or crimes that provide the funding to pay for drugs.

The problem has grown so large that Allen has joined forces with other DA offices to sue the drug companies that make the painkillers.

On Thursday, the Court of Appeals ruled the seven district attorneys do have the legal standing to sue on behalf of all people in their communities who have been harmed by illegal drugs.

“Almost everything we look at, if you think about the low-level crimes, just our misdemeanor shopliftings, our thefts – most all the shopliftings and thefts in our community are for people to either shoplift and then sell those items to have money for drugs, or to shoplift and then return those items back to the store to get gift cards,” said Allen.

In fact, so many people had become addicted to pills through numerous “pill mill” operations, once they couldn’t get prescription drugs anymore, Allen says they turned to heroin.

“Because heroin was so much cheaper and it was so much more available, and because it was available – people turned to that and then the dealers started cutting their heroin with fentanyl,” Allen said.

It was that societal shift that has changed how the Knox County District Attorney’s Office combats crime, most recently by creating the Overdose Death Task Force – where the DA’s office looks at dealers bringing drugs into the community and tracing back the deaths of anyone they sold to and holding them accountable.

“We will charge dealers in this community with second-degree homicide,” said Allen, which is a Class A felony, meaning even if you have no priors it is a 15-25 year minimum sentence if found guilty.

On the other end of the spectrum, the DA’s office also has a Vivitrol Program to help combat the drug crime in our community, giving folks a chance at treatment versus incarceration.

The Vivitrol Program is a partnership with the Knox County Sheriff’s Department and the Helen Ross McNabb Center to identify people in jail who are thought to be addicts committing crimes because they were addicted – not criminal defendants who happened to be using.

“People who are dealing drugs and are really hardcore criminals, we didn’t want to give anything but jail time to,” says Allen. “But people who were addicts that we felt were just out shoplifting or being caught with paraphernalia because they were using, those were the people that we ran through the program and it has been very successful overall in reducing recidivism.”

To date, there have been 171 suspected overdose deaths in Knox County this year.