Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Monday announced a wide-ranging plan to crack down on a state — and national — scourge: a growing number of deaths caused by heroin, heroin synthetics and prescription painkillers.
More than 1,100 people have died in Virginia from overdoses from such drugs in 2016, he said.
“You all know day-in and day-out just how devastating this is,” Herring told the annual gathering of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police at the Wyndham Virginia Beach Oceanfront hotel. “That’s 1,100 families with an empty bedroom upstairs or an empty seat at the dining room table.”
According to Virginia Department of Health numbers, the 1,136 fatal overdoses from these drugs statewide in 2016 was 40 percent higher than the 811 such deaths in 2015.
The Peninsula, Middle Peninsula and Isle of Wight spiked even faster: They had a combined 94 fatal overdoses from heroin, synthetics and other opioids in 2016 — a 67 percent jump from the 56 such deaths the year before, the state numbers show.
And the overdose deaths statewide are on pace to grow again this year.
The changes Herring called for Monday include the following:
- New laws to help police and prosecutors in Virginia crack down on those who deal fentanyl — a cheap and potent alternative to heroin that’s responsible for many of the deaths.
- A better statewide prescription monitoring system to ensure physicians don’t dole out painkillers to patients already getting them from another doctor.
- A requirement that health insurance providers cover alternative treatments to deal with pain, such as physical therapy.
- Approval from the General Assembly for Herring to investigate price gouging by companies selling Naloxone, an antidote to overdoses that’s used by medical professionals and law enforcement alike.
- Teaching Virginia schoolchildren about heroin and prescription painkillers beginning in middle school.
“The problem has become so widespread,” Herring told reporters after addressing the chiefs. “We want every family in Virginia to be having this conversation right now. Parents should not wait until some later time to have this conversation with their son or their daughter.”
Studies have shown that people who end up with a heroin addiction initially began with prescription painkillers — such as OxyContin and Oxycodone — to deal with back or joint pain.
“The fact is, this problem often has its roots in the medicine cabinet as opposed to the streets,” Herring said in a news release. “Something as simple as a sports injury, minor surgery, or dental work can expose a person to powerful drugs that can send them down a path of dependence and addiction.”
A large part of Herring’s new focus is cracking down on fentanyl.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says fentanyl is a “powerful synthetic opiate" that's "similar to but more potent than morphine," and is "typically used to treat patients with severe pain." Fentanyl is made in clandestine labs more cheaply than true heroin, then combined with powdered heroin and sold in a mixture on the street to make the dealer profit even more.
“Fentanyl can be deadly in microscopic doses,” Herring told the chiefs. “The drugs are so powerful and so potent that just a small amount can kill someone.”
But Herring said there are “loopholes” in state law allowing dealers who deal fentanyl and heroin to get away with any resulting deaths. “This allows dealers and traffickers to escape accountability when their drugs kill a Virginian,” Herring said. While some of these people are prosecuted federally, he said, “Virginia’s commonwealth’s attorneys need a tool to hold these dealers and traffickers accountable in state court,” as well.
Herring also wants changes to ensure those selling fentanyl alternatives can be charged criminally — even if the chemical altered slightly. “Because new fentanyl analogs are being created by illicit chemists, the law should make it clear that fentanyl analogs will be prosecuted in the same way as traditional fentanyl and may be subject to lower distribution thresholds because of their potency,” Herring said.
Moreover, Herring wants new laws to go after people whose drugs harm a law enforcement officer or medic. The responders risk an overdose, Herring said, if they are exposed to a drug at a scene. “The General Assembly should clarify that a dealer or trafficker can be charged with a felony assault on a law enforcement officer if their fentanyl causes an overdose of a first responder.”
Herring asserted Monday that overprescriptions by doctors are a huge part of the problem.
He announced he’s joined a bipartisan coalition of 37 other attorneys general to mandate that health insurers pay for other forms of pain treatment, not just loading people up with painkillers. The letter describes the opioid epidemic as “the preeminent public health crisis of our time” and says that opioid prescriptions have quadrupled since 1999 despite no increase in the amount of pain Americans report having. Alternative pain treatment, the letter says, might include physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care and non-opioid medications.
Herring also says Virginia needs to ramp up its monitoring of opioid prescriptions so that someone can’t get the drugs from two different doctors. “We need to make this program mandatory for every opioid prescription, regardless of the length of treatment or dosage, and without exception,” he said.
Hampton Police Chief Terry Sult said he liked Herring’s proposals, including going after fentanyl dealers and going after overprescriptions. “I was very encouraged by what the attorney general said today,” Sult said. “He hit the high points on what we need to be doing.”
The effort includes prevention, education, treatment — and law enforcement, he said. “We have to hold people accountable who distribute heroin or opioids,” Sult said. “Fentanyl is a very dangerous drug out there. We’re seeing more and more of it being seized. Folks thinking they’re taking heroin may be taking pure fentanyl, which could be fatal in those dose amounts. It’s very concerning to us across the board because at the end of the day this is about saving lives.”
Sult said “a deadly dose of fentanyl is about the size of the tip of your pen.”
Over the past year or so, Sult said, the Hampton Police Division has successfully deployed Naloxone, which can be used by police officers on an overdosing person before medics arrive. “It is indeed saving lives,” he said. "We’ve probably had five or six saves on the police side — or more — since we’ve rolled it out.”
Sentara Careplex was instrumental in getting the effort going in Hampton, he said, including training police officers. “And they also provided the Naloxone for our initial deployment. As a result, there have been lives saved.”
Smithfield Police Chief Alonzo Howell said his town hasn’t seen a big problem with heroin and painkiller overdoses but has the Naloxone injections at the ready too. "We have the injection, and so we are somewhat prepared,” he said. “We haven’t had to deploy any as of yet, and we are glad of that.”
Peter Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749 or on Twitter at @petedujardin.