Attorney General Mark Herring today announced a series of initiatives to combat a recent rise in fatal overdoses of heroin and prescription opiates.
Legislative, prosecutorial, and educational efforts will complement and build on the efforts of other state, local, and federal agencies to fight abuse of prescription drugs and heroin. During Attorney General Herring’s public safety tour in March, the spike in abuse of and fatalities caused by heroin and prescription drugs was discussed at more than 75% of the tour’s 22 meetings. Herring announced his five-part action plan during remarks at the annual conference of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police in Roanoke.
“Far too many Virginians are losing loved ones to prescription drug abuse and the resurgence of cheap, potent heroin,” said Attorney General Herring. “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. To effectively address this problem we’ll need a state, local, and federal commitment to prevention and education, treatment, enforcement, and prosecution. I’m eager to work with our public safety partners to get this poison off the streets.”
According to the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, more than 800 Virginians died from drug overdoses in 2012, with heroin overdose deaths nearly doubling from 103 in 2011 to 197 in 2013. Every region of the state experienced an increase in heroin fatalities in that period, including a 164% increase in Northern Virginia, a 94% increase in Hampton Roads, and a 50% increase in the Richmond metro area. The number of heroin cases submitted to the Department of Forensic Science has increased by 79% from 2006-2012.
Prosecutions and Partnerships
The heroin and prescription drug problem is not isolated to any particular part of the state and it will require a range of strategies. Attorney General Herring’s efforts will complement and enhance those of local and federal prosecutors who are working to hold drug dealers accountable.
- The Attorney General’s Office will be working with local Commonwealth’s Attorneys and the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts to prosecute heroin fatality cases at the federal level where statutes are more effective.
- Regional prosecutors from the Office of Attorney General in Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, and Western Virginia have been instructed to prioritize heroin and prescription abuse cases. Prosecutors can either assist local Commonwealth’s Attorneys with complex cases, take them to one of Virginia’s twelve multi-jurisdictional grand juries, or work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute cases federally, as appropriate.
- With the support of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Dana Boente, an OAG prosecutor is being placed in Hampton Roads for the first time, with the charge to prioritize heroin and prescription drug cases.
“We are committed to working with the Virginia Office of the Attorney General and our partners across federal, state, and local law enforcement to combat the abuse of heroin and prescription opiates, which can have devastating effects on victims, their families, and our communities,” said Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Our partnership with the Virginia Attorney General’s office has yielded tangible results in successful prosecutions and ongoing investigations, and we look forward to building on those efforts so that we can prevent future tragedies.”
“In Hampton Roads we have been discussing this because we’ve seen an increase in use and fatalities in the last year or two,” said Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright. “We’re working with federal and state partners to identify sources of these drugs and the individuals responsible so we can apply a strategy to help reduce these tragic deaths.”
“I applaud the Attorney General for traveling throughout the Commonwealth to hear the concerns of prosecutors and law enforcement officials,” said Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan. “This initiative demonstrates that it was not just a “dog and pony” show! He took our concerns back to Richmond and formulated a multi-prong approach that includes prevention and prosecution. I am honored to partner with Attorney General Mark Herring to combat heroin and prescription drug abuse.”
Development of Legislative Solutions
Attorney General Herring has identified several legislative priorities to improve relevant laws and to implement provisions that have been successful in other states.
- “Good Samaritan” provision for overdoses–Accidental overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Often, those who witness a fatal overdose in progress are addicts themselves and they resist calling for medical help because of fear of prosecution. In order to specifically target the rise in fatalities connected to prescription drug and heroin overdose, the OAG will work with law enforcement and prosecutors to craft legislation that provides limited immunity from prosecution for minor offenses for those who witness an overdose and seek immediate medical assistance during an overdose emergency. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already enacted these laws.
- More effective “drug induced homicide” statutes–Virginia’s current statute makes it difficult to prosecute dealers whose drugs lead to a fatal overdose. In many instances, these cases are taken to the federal level where the statutes more effectively address drug distribution resulting in death.
- Naloxone pilot project expansion–the General Assembly previously approved a pilot project to allow Richmond, Chesterfield, and a few jurisdictions in Southwest Virginia to use naloxone, a prescription that can reverse the effect of an opiate overdose nearly instantly. Other states such as New York and Massachusetts have widely deployed naloxone to successfully save hundreds of lives during a prescription drug or heroin overdose. The OAG will work with local police and sheriffs’ departments to determine whether the legislative approval should be extended further, and if so, how to most effectively acquire and deploy naloxone.
“The local, regional and national response to heroin and prescription drug overdoses and deaths requires a multi-faceted response,” said Richmond Chief of Police Ray J. Tarasovic. “The enhancements to the Commonwealth’s response proposed by the Attorney General provide detection, prevention, treatment, education and enforcement tools. We, with our regional, state and federal partners, will continue to utilize every means possible, including these, in our continuing efforts to save lives and ensure public safety.”
Accountability for Professionals Who Make Prescriptions Illegally Available
When a doctor, pharmacist, or pharmacy technician is accused of overprescribing, stealing, or otherwise making prescription opiates available illegally, the Office of Attorney General is responsible for presenting evidence to professional regulatory boards for possible license revocation. The OAG will aggressively seek suspension, revocation, or other appropriate sanctions against individuals who violate their professional responsibilities and make it easier for Virginians to abuse prescription opiates.
Prevention and Education
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s statistics show that the most overdose deaths occur between the ages of 25-34, meaning the key to addressing the heroin and prescription crisis is to keep people, especially young ones, from using in the first place.
- A module dealing specifically with prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse will be added to the Virginia Rules program, the Office of Attorney General’s comprehensive program to help middle and high school age children make good decisions and avoid trouble with the law.
- Training materials, including a specially produced video, will be developed to show law enforcement what to expect when they arrive at the scene of an overdose, how to respond, and any new laws that come out of this year’s General Assembly session.
- “Prescription Drug Take-Back” training materials will be updated so police departments or community organizations can help keep unused prescriptions off the streets.
Executive Summit on Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse
Attorney General Herring’s office has worked with Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to organize a summit of law enforcement leaders, prosecutors, and health professionals to determine what legislative or tactical changes may be needed to reduce the usage of and fatalities caused by prescription opiates and heroin. Leaders from communities that have been hit particularly hard by heroin and prescription abuse have been invited to this day-long summit to be held on October 2 in Charlottesville.
“The Fairfax County Police Department is privileged to partner with the Virginia Office of the Attorney General to investigate and combat the growing concerns of heroin trafficking in the Commonwealth,” saidFairfax Police Captain David A. Russell. “The highly addictive and destructive nature of the drug creates a substantial risk to all users, their family and friends. The Fairfax County Police Department will maximize its resources to address the growing heroin concern and appreciates the opportunity this partnership will bring for such a worthy cause.”
“Culpeper has experienced a couple hundred heroin overdoses, resulting in over twenty deaths,” saidCulpeper County Sheriff Scott H. Jenkins. “After taking a comprehensive look at the problem, the AG’s Office quickly adopted an aggressive approach- coordinating with law enforcement for prosecutions and with legislators to address deficiencies in state laws.”