by James A. Bacon

Catelyn Weems was a typical kid from a middle-class family, healthy, outgoing, having everything to live for, when a soccer injury sent her life spiraling into hell. A series of operations to fix teeth damaged in the accident led to overuse of prescription pain killers. Catelyn tried to shake her addiction, repeatedly getting clean then relapsing, but the drugs proved stronger than she did. Prescription opioids led to heroin, which accelerated the downward spiral. Her struggle ended when she died of an overdose.

Heroin, once associated with bohemians and inner-city poor, has gone mainstream. Addiction has become an epidemic here in Virginia as a new gateway — prescription painkillers — has introduced heroin to segments of the population that traditionally eschewed hard drugs.

Heroin and prescription drug overdoses killed 700 Virginians last year, more than the number who died in automobile accidents, said Attorney General Mark Herring yesterday during the roll-out of a documentary, “Heroin: The Hardest Hit.”

Overdose deaths have rocketed higher in recent years, shooting up 50% in the Richmond region between 2011 and 2013, 94% in Hampton Roads, and 164% in Northern Virginia. Addiction has struck families that never imagined they would be afflicted by the scourge, said Herring.

If there’s any silver lining, it’s that heroin has no defenders, and there seems to be  bipartisan resolve to address the problem. In the documentary (seen above), Herring mentions several actions that can be taken now. They include:

  • Prosecute drug dealers more aggressively.
  • Expand availability of Naloxone, a drug that immediately reverses the effect of heroin overdoses.
  • Pass a “good Samaritan” bill that shelters people who call to report an overdose from prosecution for drug possession or other possible crimes.
  • Create a monitoring program to identify abusers of prescription pain killers.
  • Increase parental/family awareness of the signs of drug abuse.

These all sound worthwhile, although it strikes me that they only scratch the surface of the problem. Virginia probably will have to commit greater resources to substance abuse programs to help those willing to be helped. But the state budget is tight; any spending initiative should include a research and accountability component to determine which treatment programs show the highest rate of success.

Meanwhile, it is important not to portray the heroin epidemic as a middle-class white problem, as the profiling of white overdose victims in the documentary appears to make it. Heroin addiction also afflicts minorities, who may encounter the drug in a different cultural and socio-economic context. No segment of society is immune, there are different pathways to heroin addiction, and our approach to the problem should acknowledge that reality.

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6 responses to “Virginia’s Heroin Epidemic”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “These all sound worthwhile, although it strikes me that they only scratch the surface of the problem.”

    Boy, is that ever true. I suspect the real problems lie far deeper below the surface. And that they include the breakdown of many former pillars of our society. Such as functional families, schools, and traditional value systems that, despite many, many short comings and injustices, by and large did a far better job of holding our society together and functioning top to bottom.

    So now the negative fallout of these pervasive breakdowns now infect our society from top to bottom.

    1. Reed, I agree that there may be a social-breakdown component to the heroin epidemic, which should not be ignored. Arguably, strong families are better equipped to resist the heroin scourge.

      What worries me, though, is that the prevalence of prescription opioid drugs has created a pathway to heroin addiction that didn’t exist a decade or two ago. Chris Christie made quite an impression a month or so ago when he described how one of his close friends, a successful professional with a strong family, got addicted to prescription painkillers, his life spiraled out of control, and he committed suicide. The takeaway is that heroin addiction afflicts Americans of all walks of life.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Yes, Jim –

        I agree with you on the likely “over prescription of opioid drugs’ today, and also with CrazyJD follow – on comments.

        I have some personal experience here, knowing how easy it is to rely too much for too long on such drugs for pain after a catastrophic accident, and/or for long lasting chronic pain as a result of that accident or arising independent of it.

        There also appears to be some perverse incentives, however well intended, that encourages physicians to prescribe such drugs so as to keep patients on regular visits, particularly in the mental health field.

        These problems of course have been around a long time. There was a morphine epidemic during and after WWII as a result of the over prescription of that drug for pain during combat and/or after it.

        For example, many a Marine or sailor went into Naval Medical after the war with chronic pain only to emerge from the hospital an opioid addict.

        But why now the increasingly prevalence of this drugs as additions, and how to fix it? That is a thorny and difficult question. Very dangerous if some distant bureaucrat or regulation starts taking pain medication away from people in pain. That can go down hill very quick. So there can be great abuse at both ends of the problem.

  2. Well said, Reed, though I can tell you from my experience with clients that some of their occupations can lead to addiction. One client was a tree trimmer, who often endure injuries that cause great pain. They start with Alleve, that doesn’t work, they move on to oxy, then when that doesn’t work they move to heroin, which does work. They get picked up for possession, spend a few months in jail, go through withdrawl (heroin is not yet available in the regional jails), get out, take a hit at the dosage they were used to using, and die of overdose tout de suite.

    If you want to observe how heroin gets into Virginia, just watch the tree trimming trucks, which often carry it inside the blades of the giant limb chippers they carry behind the truck. The stuff comes down Rt 29 from Baltimore through Virginia’s tree trimming capital, Culpeper.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    ………. “…addicted to prescription painkillers”

    ” The takeaway is that heroin addiction afflicts Americans of all walks of life.”

    how are the two connected?

    how about this:

    ” CDC: Prescription Drugs Kill More Than Illegal Drugs;”

    finally – why this:

    ” Prosecute drug dealers more aggressively.”

    when we’ve been doing this for quite some time and the prisons are full of them?

    my view is that if we really want to deal with the problem – we have to face the truth – we have to WANT to face the truth and stop conjuring up false narratives …

    finally – why are the jails full of what kind of drug offender – and not the other?

  4. Every time I go to Singapore I see this on the embarkation card I sign.

    The Singaporeans are quite serious with regard to executing drug dealers. They do so routinely and they don’t care if the dealer / smuggler is a foreign national (as a few Australians learned to their chagrin).

    The United States has a drug related death rate of 6.96 per 100,000 (third highest in the world), Singapore has a drug related death rate of 0.18 per 100,000 (one of the lowest in the world).

    While I don’t condone the death penalty for any reason I have to admit that Singapore’s approach works and ours does not.

    Indonesia also executes drug dealers and has a drug related death rate of 0.02 per 100,000. In early hours of April 29th, 2015 Indonesia executed eight convicted drug traffickers. Seven of the eight were foreigners: two Australians, a Brazilian and four Nigerians.

    Interestingly, the Netherlands – long know for drug tolerance – has a death rate of 0.63 per 100,000 (quite low among developed countries).

    We seem to be “stuck in the middle” with neither the Indonesian resolve nor the Dutch enlightenment.

    As always, our federal government’s “war on drugs” (like the war on poverty, war on Vietnam, etc) has been a spectacular failure.

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