Attorney General proposes new bills to fight heroin

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Source - ABC 13 News Now 

RICHMOND -- Attorney general Mark Herring is proposing four bills in the new legislative session in an attempt to break the rising trend of heroin deaths in Virginia.

Herring said he decided to take steps to fight back against the growing use of heroin and prescription drugs after hearing cries for help from local law enforcement and prosecutors across the state.

"I heard directly from local law enforcement and prosecutors that in the last year or two it had really spiked," Herring said in an interview from his office in Richmond the week before the legislature convened. "Too many Virginians are losing their lives to these dangerous drugs. i don't want another parent to have to bury a child or a child to lose a parent because of heroin and prescription drug abuse."

Data from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows heroin-related deaths doubled from 100 in 2011 to 213 in 2013. In Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach is a hot spot for heroin and prescription drug deaths.

That's why Commonwealth's Attorney Colin Stolle has teamed up with families affected by the epidemic to try and stop the problem.

"We've seen a sharp incline in the use of heroin over the years," Stolle said. "In addition to that, we've seen a dramatic increase in heroin deaths over the last few years."

Among the biggest dangers, the prosecutor said, is the fact that drug users have know way of knowing what they're actually putting in their bodies when they buy and use drugs.

"It's a potent combination and individuals are using this heroin and it's killing them."

Stolle took part in the drug summit hosted by Herring in October and supports the attorney general's efforts to stop the problem at the state level.

The four bills span a wide array of proposals:

-"Good Samaritan" provision for overdoses--Accidental overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Often, those who witness a fatal overdose in progress are addicts themselves and they resist calling for medical help because of fear of prosecution. In order to specifically target the rise in fatalities connected to prescription drug and heroin overdose, the OAG will work with law enforcement and prosecutors to craft legislation that provides limited immunity from prosecution for minor offenses for those who witness an overdose and seek immediate medical assistance during an overdose emergency. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already enacted these laws.

-More effective "drug induced homicide" statutes--Virginia's current statute makes it difficult to prosecute dealers whose drugs lead to a fatal overdose. In many instances, these cases are taken to the federal level where the statutes more effectively address drug distribution resulting in death.

-Naloxone pilot project expansion--the General Assembly previously approved a pilot project to allow Richmond, Chesterfield, and a few jurisdictions in Southwest Virginia to use naloxone, a prescription that can reverse the effect of an opiate overdose nearly instantly. Other states such as New York and Massachusetts have widely deployed naloxone to successfully save hundreds of lives during a prescription drug or heroin overdose. The OAG will work with local police and sheriffs' departments to determine whether the legislative approval should be extended further, and if so, how to most effectively acquire and deploy naloxone.

-Prescription Monitoring Program--calls for the Department of Health Professions to disclose more information about prescriptions to police officers, probation officers or parole officers.

Carolyn Weems is a member of the Virginia Beach School Board and also an anti-drug advocate. She learned the dangers of heroin firsthand after her daughter, Caitlyn, overdosed on the drug.

"What we think happened was that she was just very anxious and very tired and in pain and she just took something and then just never woke up," Weems said. "She knew she was in a place that she didn't want to be, that we didn't want her to be and she was trying to climb out of the hole and she almost made it."

Caitlyn's addiction began after she was prescribed painkillers for a squished disk in her back and a knee injury. Often times, Weems said, legitimate prescription painkiller use can lead to a deadly drug addiction.

"I think that's the sad part of this drug," Weems said. "If you do not take it seriously and if you're in denial then it can take your life."

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