By Christopher Brown and McKenzie Lambert
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Almost two dozen political candidates recently attended a forum focused on implementing solutions to combat drug addiction and substance misuse in Virginia.
About 100 audience members attended the event, hosted by the Henrico County-based McShin Foundation. The nonprofit supports individuals and families in recovery for addiction and substance misuse.
“We wanted to create a space for any addict or alcoholic in the community [that] will have a place to go seven days a week, 365 days a year, free and open to the public,” said John Shinholser, co-founder of McShin. “All these candidates, most of them didn’t have a clue about real recovery in real-time. They all leaving up out of here understanding.”
The forum was split into three sessions of six to seven speakers. Candidates had two minutes each for introductions and wrap-ups, with 20 seconds to answer audience questions. Candidates fielded hard-hitting questions and learned from the audience on issues surrounding drug addiction and recovery.
The first round of candidates to speak included:
- Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, up for reelection in the 72nd District
- Joe Morrissey, Democratic candidate for the 16th Senate District
- Delta Bowers, independent candidate for the Fairfield District Henrico County Board of Supervisors
- Melissa Dart, candidate for the Tuckahoe District Henrico County School Board
- Stephanie Lynch, independent candidate for Richmond’s City Council 5th District
- Rodney Willett, Democratic candidate for 73rd House District
- Shajuan Mason, Democratic candidate for Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors
Morrisey, who has endorsed McShin for more than a decade, said during his opening statement that he will advocate for increasing the number of drug courts to save on conviction costs as well as lower recidivism rates in Virginia.
Drug courts, which exist within the judicial system, were established by the General Assembly to assist individuals in drug or drug-related cases and provide an alternative to incarceration. Drug courts reduce recidivism by allowing individuals to go through intense treatment options while under heavy supervision, hoping to increase recovery rates. There are 50 approved drug treatment courts in Virginia.
“I remember 10 years ago, trying to explain to colleagues on the other side of the aisle why we need to double the number of drug courts in Virginia,” Morrissey said. “I tried to explain to them how we can incarcerate people at $42,000 a year, when we can send them through a drug court for $6,200 a year.”
He said the recidivism rate for people who successfully complete drug court is 6.1%, but the recidivism rate for people who go to prison is 61%.
The first question to candidates was if they support “proven recovery solutions like McShin, opposed to jail.”
A majority of candidates said they believe people with drug addictions should not be criminalized, but instead should be given proper treatment for their “substance use disorder.”
Morrissey added during his response that Virginia needs a “third court.”
“Not only are we going to double the number of drug courts in Virginia, we’re going to create a third court,” Morrissey said. “We have criminal courts, we have drug courts, we need a mental health court.”
The second round of candidates to speak included:
- Shannon Taylor, Democrat, running for reelection as Henrico’s Commonwealth Attorney
- Marques Jones, Democratic candidate for the Tuckahoe District Henrico County Board of Supervisors
- Alisa Gregory, Democratic candidate for Henrico County sheriff.
- Morgan Goodman, Democractic candidate for 55th House District
- Mamie Taylor, independent candidate for Richmond’s City Council 5th District
- Thad Williamson, independent candidate for Richmond’s City Council 5th District
- Wendy Hobbs, independent candidate for Goochland County Board of Supervisors
Shannon Taylor, who is running for her third term, touted her 10-plus years as an ally with McShin in her opening statement saying, “I am proud to have been a partner — and it’s not just on election year.”
Corey Taylor, a person in recovery, looked for solutions from the panel for the struggle individuals face getting help once released from jail on drug-related charges. Taylor, who said he understands the problem first hand, expressed his frustration.
“Once I was released on Dec. 4, 2018, I went to Miss [Sara Davis] Harman and I asked her, ‘was there any type of relief for inmates once they are released from incarceration?’” Taylor said. “She told me flat out, ‘No, there isn’t any.’ I would love to know why — I would love to know what you could do to help people that are released?”
The candidates proposed solutions such as funding for locations like McShin and housing and reentry programs, which help previously incarcerated individuals reintegrate in society.
“It starts with reentry — we simply need a reentry specialist, someone that creates an individual plan for folks that are leaving out of the facility,” Gregory said. “But, what we really need is money — there is a disparaging part of our population that will never have the opportunity to come [to McShin] because they don’t have the funds.”
The third and final panel included:
- Stan Scott, Democratic candidate for the 4th Senate District
- David Upshaw, independent candidate for Caroline County Board of Supervisors
- Owen Conway, Republican candidate for Henrico Commonwealth Attorney
- Scott Miles, Democrat, Chesterfield’s Commonwealth Attorney
- Bob Matson, Republican candidate for Henrico’s Sheriff
- Colette McEachin, Democratic candidate for Richmond City Commonwealth Attorney
Scott, a veteran who struggled with addiction, was adamant that veterans struggling with drug addiction should have access to good health care — the first step in combating substance use disorder, he said.
“We need to make sure everyone has access to good health care, not just health insurance,” Scott said. “Because in the Army, I had that good health care and that’s how I was able to get treatment.”
While several jabs were taken among some candidates, most candidates agreed that substance abuse issues are a health care issue rather than a criminal issue. Bowers emphasized this point and said she would work closely with prosecutors or the commonwealth attorney instead of putting people in jail who are battling substance misuse issues.
“What I believe is a disease, we want to treat that disease,” Bowers said. Other candidates agreed and said they do not want those suffering from substance misuse to suffer more than they already have.
The McShin Foundation started in the basement of Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church in Henrico. The foundation quickly expanded its square footage and resources and now offers a 28-day residential treatment program.
The final day to register to vote in state elections is Oct. 15. Elections are Nov. 5.