By Sophia Belletti
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — An average of 19 people a week overdosed on opioids in Richmond last year, and government agencies and other entities have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways, from dispensing overdose reversal drugs to arresting addicts.
Academic and law-enforcement experts discussed the problem and possible solutions Tuesday in a panel discussion titled “The Opioid Epidemic: Impact on Communities” at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It is our problem, and it is our responsibility,” said Kate Howell, an assistant professor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
“Addiction is not new,” Howell said. “What is new is the drugs are more powerful and affordable than they were in the past and easier to get.”
Amy Cook, also an assistant professor in the Wilder School, said there are three approaches to combating the epidemic:
Expansion of community-based services
Needle exchange programs
In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly legalized needle exchange services — but no program has been implemented in the commonwealth.
Cook said needle exchanges recognize the multidimensional factors needed to treat addiction. However, she said, there is not a “one size fits all” approach.
“Were looking at a variety of treatment approaches — community-based, sociological issues, biological issues,” Cook said. “The key part is, you have to be able to address it all and monitor it all — and when it’s not monitored, that’s where we drop the ball.”
Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard said he uses an “arrest them all” strategy when it comes to preventing overdoses.
“There is no other program for them to get the help they need,” Leonard said. “At least arresting and bringing them in, they’re alive.”
Leonard said he doesn’t want to arrest addicts, but said the resources they need aren’t accessible in most communities. Through the “arrest them all” strategy, Leonard allows addicts to get off the street and sober.
“In 37 years, I never saw any drug as harmful, as plentiful, as cheap as heroin,” he said. “As a state, we’re failing.”
The leading causes of unnatural death in Virginia from 2007 to 2013 were motor vehicle collisions, gun-related deaths and fatal drug overdoses. In 2013, fatal drug overdoses became the leading cause, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
First responders who work with the Richmond Ambulance Authority have seen a spike in the number of opioid overdose patients in recent years. They estimate using about 1,000 doses of the overdose revival drug Naloxone to save people’s lives last year.
In November 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in Virginia.
The opioid crisis has affected people not only in cities but also in suburban and rural areas, especially in Appalachia. That has made the problem hard to ignore.
“It wasn’t a crisis until it hit a group of communities we can’t ignore,” Howell said. ”Once it hit our suburban communities, they called it a problem. It sets up this dichotomy where we expect a certain kind of people. Now it’s different; we say, ‘Oh no, we have to do something.’”