CHARLOTTESVILLE — Amid an upturn in heroin and prescription drug overdoses and deaths across the state, public health and safety officials gathered today to discuss the scope of a problem that some are calling an epidemic, along with possible solutions.
“Every region has been impacted by this scourge,” says Brian Moran, state secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, addressing an audience of about 170 local police chiefs, lawyers, policy makers and public health officials at the Doubletree hotel in Charlottesville.
“We can’t simply arrest our way out of this opioid and heroin problem,” Moran adds, stressing the importance of a statewide commitment to providing more extensive detox and rehabilitative services for addicts.
There were no heroin-related deaths in Virginia in 2004, according to data from the state chief medical examiner’s office. In 2013, the drug caused 197 deaths, a 58-percent increase from the year before and nearly double the number it caused in 2011. The cause of the increase, officials say, is the growing abuse of prescription pain medications, which accounted for more than 500 overdose deaths last year, as well. Heroin offers a cheaper and stronger alternative for people hooked on prescription medications.
As deaths have increased in suburban and rural areas, stereotypes of what a heroin user or dealer is have been dashed. Young, middle-class victims of opiate overdose deaths have left families and communities reeling, Attorney General Mark Herring says.
“That old stereotype of a heroin user being someone who is at the end of their rope, living in the city in an abandoned warehouse, was really not matching up with the heroin stories I was reading and hearing today,” Herring told the audience.
Carolyn Weems, a Virginia Beach resident who spoke to the audience, lost her 21-year-old daughter in 2013 to a heroin overdose.
“Her roommate had found her on the bathroom floor … we had thought she was on the road to recovery,” Weems says, fighting back tears. “It was just so senseless.”
After Herring took office in January, the attorney general took a 55-stop “public safety tour” across the state. On three quarters of those stops, heroin or prescription drugs were mentioned as a problem, he says. The feedback from local law enforcement combined with the mounting statistical evidence revealed the full scope of the problem to him, says Herring, who in September announced a plan of action to address it.
Targeting doctors, nurses and pharmacists who illegally distribute opiates has become a priority. Seven healthcare professionals had their licenses revoked in September after Herring’s office presented evidence to state licensing boards implicating the individuals in illegally distributing prescription medications, according to a news release.
Ahead of the 2015 General Assembly session, Herring says he’d like state lawmakers to consider harsher penalties for drug-induced homicides to target dealers who sell heroin or painkillers to overdose victims. “We should have state law that’s at least as effective as the federal law,” he says.
Adding a “good Samaritan” law to the books, as 17 other states and Washington, D.C., have done, would provide limited legal immunity to someone reporting an overdose in progress and help save lives, Herring says. Oftentimes, he adds, people witnessing an overdose don’t call 911 because they, too, are addicts. Funding wider use of Naloxone, a drug that can effectively reverse an overdose in progress, by first-responders would also prevent deaths, Herring says.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced last week the creation of a state task force to address the trend.