Almost two years to the day after the regional Heroin Operations Team of local, state, and federal law enforcement and other government agencies was announced at the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, some of those same leaders were back in the same room on Tuesday.
They were organized by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) and joined by Lawrence “Chip” Muir, member of the Trump transition team and general counsel and acting chief of staff at the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy. They were also joined by Nick Yacoub, an addict who is now nine years clean; and Ginny Lovitt, co-founder of the Chris Atwood Foundation. That foundation is named after her brother, who died of a heroin overdose in 2013, and works to provide recovery resources and support for families affected by addiction.
The conversation focused on working across agencies and the region to better combat the heroin epidemic and the disease of addiction. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Major Richard Fiano said much of the heroin in Loudoun is sold from outside the county, through Baltimore and DC. And it finds its way into the bodies of people of every age, starting with prescription drugs among people in their mid-teens.
“Our average age of our heroin overdose is around 30 years old,” Fiano said. “We see them from 20 all the way to around 52. Most of them say they started with some kind of prescription drugs around 15 or 16 years old.”
It can affect anyone—Leesburg Chief of Police Greg Brown gave the example of a chief of police in New Jersey who wound up addicted to heroin and homeless.
But there are still gaps in the treatment available in Loudoun, said Philip Erickson, the Substance Abuse Program Manager at the Loudoun Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services.
“We don’t have a detox or residential treatment program in this county, but we do have vendor contracts outside the county, and most seem to work very well,” Erickson said. “They are not cheap, not everyone gets into those programs that needs to. You can’t always get everyone in there in a timely fashion.”
But to get to an overdose, a person—like Chris Atwood—has usually already fallen through the cracks. Atwood fought addiction for six years, and a month before he died, he was in the hospital for another overdose.
“They saved his life using naloxone … and then he was released several hours later without any resources, follow-up, anything,” Lovitt said. She said that was a missed opportunity to supply him with naloxone, which is used to revive people who have overdosed on opioids, and it might have cost Atwood his life.
“If he had had that to take home, then a month later, when I came home and found him not breathing, then I would have had that to use on him,” she said. “But I didn’t.”
Since then, her organization has worked to make naloxone available to more people. On Feb. 23, the fourth anniversary of Atwood’s death, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a law that allows organizations like the Chris Atwood Foundation to dispense naloxone. Since then, the foundation has turned its attention toward shelters, tent communities, emergency rooms, jails, and other places where people who suffer addiction can wind up.
Nick Yacoub, who says he is in long-term recovery from substance abuse disorder, said there is still more to do.
“Coordination is amazing, but I think we need to address stigma specifically,” he said. Many people who are addicted are too ashamed to seek help. And, he said, it could help to follow an example set by a police department in North Carolina. People there can come the police department and turn in their drugs and paraphernalia with no fear of arrest, instead being referred to treatment.
“That is an initiative that I think would be very beneficial to people in recovery, people new to recovery, in Northern Virginia, as well as the rest of the nation,” Yacoub said.
Comstock said she’s seen a “sea change” in that direction from both parties, steering people with addiction into the recovery instead of jail.
Yacoub said the event signaled positive change.
“I’m just an everyday person who’s in recovery,” Yacoub said. “That, to me, speaks volumes to be invited to the table to talk about what my personal community is doing.”
And Comstock said support for addiction recovery has to become pervasive in society, following the example of human trafficking posters at truck stops or domestic abuse flyers at churches.
“We just need to sort of make it in the water,” Comstock said. “And have us all be a part of the web [of support].”
The meeting was also attended by representatives from the DEA, Virginia State Police, and Inova Loudoun Hospital.