Surge in heroin deaths prompts call for action in Virginia

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Source - The Washington Post

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring on Monday proposed new strategies for combating a surge in opiate overdoses, in which the number of deaths related to heroin in the state more than doubled from 2011 to 2013.

The increase mirrors a national trend. It happened in every region of the commonwealth and was particularly acute in Northern Virginia, where fatal heroin overdoses increased 163 percent from 2011 to 2013.

Most of the deaths were of people in their late 20s and early 30s.

“Far too many Virginians are losing loved ones to prescription drug abuse and the resurgence of cheap, potent heroin,” Herring (D) told the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Roanoke. “There’s no silver bullet to this spike in opiate abuse and fatalities, but we’ve identified things we can do right away to help turn the tide, and hopefully save lives.”

He said several changes to Virginia law are needed, such as “Good Samaritan” protections that would allow people to summon help for someone overdosing without fear of being arrested for drug use at the scene. (Seventeen states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia currently have such laws.)

He proposed expanding access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse some overdoses.

Herring also suggested changing the law to make it easier to prosecute dealers whose drugs cause a fatal overdose.

Cases should more often be prosecuted federally because those laws are more effective, Herring said. At the same time, he said he would tell regional prosecutors to prioritize heroin and prescription-drug cases.

The attorney general’s office will more vigorously go after doctors and pharmacists who prescribe or dispense drugs inappropriately, Herring said, to try to stem the flow of opiates that can lead to overdoses and heroin addictions.

He said new training will be added for law enforcement officers, including explanations of any legislative changes and information about how to respond when arriving on the scene of an overdose. And warnings about heroin and prescription-drug abuse will be added to the prevention programs already offered to middle school and high school students in Virginia.

“It’s time,” said Marianne Burke of Fairfax, co-founder of United We Can (Change Addiction Now) and Virginia state director for the group. “I think Virginia is really behind, so I’m very pleased it’s getting the attention.”

Much of Herring’s initiative is just what is needed, she said, although she thought the naloxone expansion proposal fell a little short. “It has been shown everywhere that it saves lives,” she said. “We don’t need a pilot program. Anybody who might be around somebody who might be suffering from an opiate overdose should have access to it.”

She said she hopes Herring will go further in recognizing addiction “as a disease and not a moral failing. . . . We need effective treatment for users who are ready to get help.”

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has made fighting opiate overdoses one of his top priorities — and the numbers have continued to rise dramatically.

In 2013, there were 464 heroin-related deaths in the state, an 88 percent increase from 2011. And in the first three months of 2014 there were 148 fatal overdoses from the drug. Now more people die in Maryland of overdoses than of homicides.

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