Loudoun’s law enforcement and political leaders addressed a packed house during a town hall meeting Friday to discuss steps they are taking to curb the epidemic of abuse of heroin.
While they highlighted progress on a multitude of initiatives, those in the crowd—many of whom had experienced the helplessness of dealing with an opioid-addicted family member or friend—said the county lacks the support services they need.
More than 60 residents crowded into the DEA Museum in Leesburg.
Standing amid the exhibits that highlighted the personal and social ravishes of drug abuse, Sheriff Mike Chapman updated residents on efforts taken since the formation of the regional Heroin Operations Team one year ago. Those include the development of more educational and prevention programs and the training of some deputies to administer Naloxone, which can—and in one Loudoun case, has—provide life-saving treatment in opioid overdose cases.
Scott W. Hoernke, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration, discussed his department’s public education efforts, including the Project Purple Initiative in Loudoun schools. However, he also highlighted a recent development in which drug dealers are lacing heroin with Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate more potent than morphine, and leading to more fatal overdoses. In some cases, he said, drug users are dead before they can fully inject the lethal combination.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10), Del. Randy Minchew (R-10) and Sen. Jennifer Wexton
(D-33) highlighted legislative efforts to address the problem. In Richmond, the General Assembly has adopted laws to encourage friends to report overdoses without fear of prosecution for their own drug use, to make Naloxone more available to the public, and to better monitor opiate prescriptions being written by doctors.
“We’ve tried for a long time to arrest ourselves out of this problem,” said Wexton, who served on the Governor’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse. Now, she said, there is a growing focus on treatment, with $2.4 million per year included in the new state budget. In Congress, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, approved by the Senate, promotes the establishment of alternative incarceration programs and outpatient treatment options for non-violent drug offenders.
Comstock, like many in the room, learned about the strength of opiate addiction through the experience of a family friend who was prescribed painkillers after suffering a sports injury.
“It is such a deadly and dangerous drug,” Comstock said. “Most important is that we all understand this can hit everybody.”
Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) also discussed her family’s experience with addiction, including a childhood friend’s fatal overdose. “It can happen in any family. It tears families apart,” she said.
Nick Yacoub, of the Substance Abuse Addiction and Recovery Alliance, provided a bit of hope. Wearing a “Celebrate Recovery” T-shirt, Yacoub, the night’s featured speaker, talked about his addictions to heroin and alcohol and the 2007 DUI arrest in Leesburg that landed him behind bars. That put him on the road to recovery through a year-long jail stay, a couple of inpatient treatment programs and 10 months in a sober living facility. “It has been an amazing journey,” he said.
“Recovery is not about bad people trying to be good. It is about sick people trying to get well,” Yacoub said.
More Help Needed
During the question and answer portion of the meeting, those in the audience made it clear more help was needed—more treatment options, more support for addicts in jail, and more programs like drug courts.
A father who recounted the frustrations of being unable to find treatment for his daughter drew applause when he questioned why the county would spend millions of dollars to build artificial turf fields at high schools, but provide no treatment centers. “Our priorities are wrong,” he said. “Shame on us.”
An Ashburn mother shared the story of her son, once a promising athlete who became addicted to prescription medication and whose drug use continued even after the fatal overdose of his best friend.
Today, her son is in jail. “That was the best damn day of my life. He is alive,” she said.
He was arrested after buying heroin in Baltimore. On past drug runs to the city, she has since learned, her son was shot at and had flat-lined in the back of an ambulance.
At times her son has sought help. She recalled him telling her, “I’m 22 and I’ve lost more of my friends than my grandparents have.” But there are few treatment options available, she said.
Even in jail where a high percentage of inmates are drug addicts, there are few resources, she said, noting that Narcotics Anonymous sessions are offered only once a week.
Pressure to reestablish the county’s drug court grew during the meeting.
In 2012, the Board of Supervisors ended the program, in which non-violent offenders were intensely supervised and counseled rather than being sent to jail.
Loudoun was among the first Virginia jurisdictions to establish the drug court as a pilot program in 2004. Today, there are more than three dozen drug courts across the commonwealth and more being established, including in nearby Winchester.
In Loudoun, the $284,000 program died with a 4-3 vote, with those opposing the funding saying it didn’t produce enough results.
That thinking may be changing.
“I heard a lot of good things about the drug court in my campaign,” Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said. “I know the drug court works and it worked.”
Buffington said he met with retired Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne, a leading proponent of the drug court, and plans to meet with Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary Clemens to discuss the options. A key challenge, he and Volpe said, would be finding judges willing to commit the extra time to supervise the program.
“We will have the conversation to look into what we can do,” Buffington said. “If we could do it, it would be great.”
Chapman said a drug court could be part of the comprehensive community effort to address the problem.
“You have legal violations. You have disease issues. You have rehabilitation and treatment. There are a lot of aspects to this and we are trying to address it from every possible way. Not any one thing works all the time,” Chapman said. “What we are trying to do is find out what works in what circumstance and address it the best we can for whatever circumstance we encounter.”