Herring calls for attack on illicit drug use

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Source - Richmond Times Dispatch

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Backed by heartbreaking stories of loss and new federal statistics showing major increases in heroin overdoses, Attorney General Mark Herring called Thursday for an unprecedented attack on illicit drug use across Virginia.

Summoning outmoded images of heroin users as lost souls at the end of their lives, Herring said heroin use and misuse of addictive prescription medicines are taking the lives of young people and others who become reliant on gateway pain medications, often moving on to take advantage of the abundant presence of heroin.

Herring addressed nearly 200 police, local government leaders and state officials as part of a summit in Charlottesville that inaugurated a statewide attack on the misuse of prescription medicines and heroin, which is increasingly available across Virginia, but especially in Richmond and Henrico County.

The two localities ranked first and second, respectively, in the state in 2013 when measured through drug cases submitted by police to the state Department of Forensic Science. Heroin was present in 547 of 3,440 drug cases submitted for testing in Richmond, while Henrico showed 226 incidents of heroin in 1,239 case submissions. That represented about 20 percent of drug cases statewide in which heroin was detected.

“We need to make sure that addicts and their families know how to get help,” Herring said, referring to an epidemic drug problem that he said is threatening public safety.

Herring’s comments came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report Thursday showing that the rate of fatal heroin overdoses doubled among 28 states, including Virginia, where figures were available between 2010 and 2012.

Deaths rose from 1,779 to 3,665, doubling the rate to 2.1 deaths per 100,000 people in the 28 states. The figure is far less than deaths from opioid painkillers, but those deaths are dropping or leveling off.

In the 28 states, 5.6 deaths per 100,000 people occurred from painkillers, dropping from 10,427 in 2010 to 9,869 in 2012.

Herring and other speakers described a growing presence of heroin, much of it from South America and Mexico, that is of varying strength and therefore far more dangerous.

Speakers described a shift in drug dependence from pain medications to heroin, which typically is far cheaper and not reliant on prescriptions, whether they be bogus or genuine.

“It’s gone from back alleys to cul-de-sacs,” said Fairfax resident Donald Flattery, whose son, Kevin, 26, overdosed just weeks ago after fighting a growing dependence on pain medications from athletic injuries. The University of Virginia graduate was becoming addicted, was getting treated, and remained part of a loving family, his father said.

“We are not addressing these shocking statistics. We are speaking about my son, your daughter, our neighbors. They are real people with real lives and their losses are the face of the epidemic we must stop,” Flattery told the audience.

Herring is helping to lead a broad attack on drug use and cited statistics Thursday that even veterans of the war on drugs said were stunning.

More than 800 people died from drug overdoses in Virginia in 2012, but heroin overdoses increased from 103 in 2011 to 197 in 2013. Deaths from drug overdoses are roughly the same in Virginia now as fatalities in automobile crashes.

While the conference was largely a common-voiced assessment of the state of drugs in Virginia, there were signs that addressing the problem will not be without acrimony.

A proposal, for instance, to establish in Virginia a Good Samaritan law that would absolve someone from possible criminal sanctions after reporting to police an imminent drug overdose and death is meeting with resistance.

A Tidewater prosecutor told the gathering that she would oppose such an effort when it is clear that a crime is being committed by the caller as well as the victim.

But Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic spoke of a different obligation. “My responsibility is to protect the people,” he said in a breakout forum, suggesting that a call that saves a life should take priority even if the caller may have been in some way associated with the drug use. Fear of arrest could lead to lost lives, he said.

John Shinholser, the influential leader of the Richmond-area McShin Foundation, agreed. “We can save lives,” he said. “Worry about an arrest some other time.”

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