Lawmakers seek to curb heroin overdose epidemic

By Craig Zirpolo
Capital News Service

“Let me show you a picture of my daughter,” Carolyn Weems said as she stood at the podium and wept. The Virginia Beach School Board member recounted how chronic pain and sports-related injuries led her daughter, a high school soccer star with a scholarship and bright future, from prescription painkillers to heroin and a cycle of rehab and relapse.

Carolyn Weems, who lost a daughter to heroin, speaks at a heroin overdose legislation conference in Richmond Tuesday.By Craig Zirpolo/VCUCNS
Carolyn Weems, who lost a daughter to heroin, speaks at a heroin overdose legislation conference in Richmond Tuesday.

Caitlyn was clean for 14 months when her daughter was born but relapsed in April 2013. At 21 years old, she died on the bathroom floor of a clean-living facility, leaving behind a 3-year-old daughter and parents still seeking answers.

“Even though it has been months since we lost our daughter, every day it’s fresh and it hurts,” Weems said. “I do not want another family to have to go through this.”

Heroin overdose deaths in Virginia have more than doubled from 100 in 2011 to 213 in 2013, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Every region of the state experienced an increase in heroin fatalities: a 164 percent increase in Northern Virginia, a 94 percent increase in Hampton Roads, and a 50 percent increase in the Richmond metro area.

In response, Attorney General Mark Herring and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are seeking passage of four bills addressing the heroin and prescription painkiller abuse epidemic in Virginia, including one that would hold drug dealers accountable for overdose deaths.

“I don’t want one more parent to bury a child, or one more child to lose a parent, because of these drugs,” Herring said at a press conference Tuesday. “This is just one step, but we think it’s an important one in turning the tide against heroin and prescription drug fatalities.”

A trio of legislators is sponsoring a medical amnesty proposal – House Bill 1500. It would encourage the reporting of overdoses in progress. Under the bill, people who have a small amount of drugs or are intoxicated would get legal protection if they report an overdose and remain on the scene. Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia have such laws.

HB 1500 is being sponsored by Dels. Betsy Carr, D-Norfolk; John O’Bannon, R-Henrico; and Thomas Rust, R-Herndon.

“It is my hope that my bill, HB 1500, when passed, will encourage individuals or their loved ones experiencing an overdose to seek timely medical attention,” Carr said. “We want to increase calls to 911 and decrease deaths from overdoses.”

Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, has introduced HB 1638, which targets drug-induced homicides. It would more directly hold drug dealers accountable when their drugs lead to an overdose death – a situation currently difficult to prosecute in Virginia.

“There is still much work to be done to combat heroin and prescription drug abuse, but by holding dealers accountable for the full consequences of their actions, we can help slow the flood of cheap, dangerous drugs on our streets,” Miller said.

Carr and O’Bannon also have filed HB 1458, a statewide expansion of the Naloxone pilot project for use by any law enforcement agency in Virginia.

Naloxone is a prescription drug that counteracts the effects of a heroin or prescription opioid overdose, reversing more than 10,000 overdoses between 1996 and 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bill would also provide immunity to law enforcement officers who administer the drug. Similar laws have passed in 23 states.

SB 817, sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, would make changes to Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program. It would help probation officers ensure that their probationers are not getting opioid prescriptions they are not authorized to have.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys back the legislation.

“It is encouraging to see lawmakers really put their heads together and work on a solution to fight the heroin epidemic that has shaken our commonwealth,” said Jim Cervera, the police chief in Virginia Beach. “This is what being smart on crime is all about.”

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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To track or comment on the bills addressing heroin overdose, visit the Richmond Sunlight website:

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Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.