RICHMOND, Virginia – Clay Porter, 32, remembers overdosing alone at his aunt’s house five years ago on heroin laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. He remembers sliding away and thinking, “This is it.”
Porter is not alone. Opioid overdoses led to more than 9,900 emergency room visits in Virginia in 2020, a nearly 30% increase from 2019, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Overdoses of fatal opioids increased nearly 260% in the decade from 2011 to 2021. Overdoses of fatal drugs have increased nearly every year in that time frame and have been the leading means of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013, according to the VDH.
Fentanyl is the driving force behind the increase in fatal overdoses in Virginia, according to the VDH. Three out of four overdoses in 2020 involved fentanyl. Fentanyl is mixed with other drugs such as heroin, illegal prescription opioids, and cocaine to increase potency, resulting in a potentially fatal interaction, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A milligram amount of fentanyl can be fatal depending on a person’s size, tolerance, and previous use. This amount can fit on the tip of a pencil, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills — imitations of prescription drugs — in the fall of 2021, more than the past two years combined. There has been a “significant rise” in the number of counterfeit pills containing a lethal dose of fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
To understand the scale of deaths from drug overdoses, the second leading cause of unnatural death in Virginia is gun-related deaths. There were nearly twice as many fatal overdoses as gun-related deaths in 2020, and the health department expects the state is on track for that to happen again once the 2021 numbers are final.
With overdoses increasing sharply, addiction treatment advocates, lawmakers, and government officials are working to save lives and combat the opioid epidemic.
Porter survived his 2017 overdose and is now a volunteer and recovery coach with the Henrico-based McShin Foundation, a community-based recovery organization. McShane is Porter’s second attempt at recovery. He said that after his initial stay in another recovery program, he went straight to his dealer’s house and relapsed again.
Porter was drawn to McShin because he was able to decide what suited him with the tools and resources available without having to go through a specific method of recovery. McShin offers a 28-day residential program and partners with physicians to detox from drugs and alcohol.
Most employees at McShin have struggled with addiction or have close relationships with someone who has it, according to McShin CEO, Honesty Liller. She said peer-to-peer software is the most beneficial in the recovery process.
“There’s no such thing as a hug,” Liller said. “There is no such thing as someone who has had a living experience with an addictive illness but also recovery.”
Porter’s latest drug charge brought him after a year and a half of staying at McShane, he said. He said he turned himself in to avoid ten years in prison.
Porter’s sentence was reduced to two months, which he completed only 52 days. He was released early on bail due to his sobriety. He remained sober throughout and after his sentence. When he returned to McShane, he was appointed as a peer recovery specialist.
“I had several rocky bottoms,” Porter said. “I fought for so long. I lost everything so many times.”
Porter struggled with addiction since the age of eleven, starting with alcohol and then moving on to hard drugs.
“I didn’t know how to deal with the world around me, and the best thing I could think of was checking in, disconnecting, or blackouts,” Porter said. “Isolate myself from the world around me.”
Porter said he has been vigil for about 21 months. He said the deaths of many of his loved ones as a direct result of drug use kept him awake.
The county still needs more resources to assist individuals seeking recovery.
A $12 million detox facility is scheduled to open in 2024. Henrico County has awarded $1 million in federal funding to the Henrico County Center for Detox and Recovery. Tyrone Nelson, the county superintendent, said during a press conference earlier this year that the center would provide inpatient same-day detox services “without barriers based on income or other resources.”
said US Representative Abigail Spannberger of Virginia, who helped secure the funding.
Henrico County set up a roundtable in 2019 to recommend ways to strengthen local addiction and recovery programs, which included a detox center. The 2020 Roundtable Report indicated that when Henrico police responded to a drug overdose, they were more likely to charge the overdose with possession because they could detox in prison, where detox and treatment services are available.
“Henrico police told the Round Table that if they had the option of taking drug users to a treatment center instead of prison, that would be best,” the report stated. “However, there is currently no delivery facility.”
The Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Department launched the Progressive Recovery Helping Addict Program, or HARP, in 2016 in response to a surge in overdoses in the county. The program runs out of prison and provides addiction recovery and mental health resources to participants. The first part of the program takes six months to complete, and the second phase includes a transition process and participation in a work release or incarceration at home. HARP has received federal grant money over the years.
The Loudoun County Police Department is working hard to reduce overdoses, according to Second Lieutenant Kevin Tucker.
The department worked with federal, state and local partners to go after drug dealers, according to Tucker. Loudoun County also provides mental health and substance abuse assistance and provides a DARE program for fifth graders.
“This is someone’s father, mother, son, brother, and so my opinion of the opioid epidemic is an absolute disgrace,” Tucker said. “It really is. It shows a deeper kind of methodological problem.”
Tucker believes that finding the root of drug abuse is the beginning of solving Virginia’s drug crisis.
“If you want to solve the problem, you have to start by asking ‘Why?'” Tucker said. “
According to Tucker, targeting only an individual who sells drugs illegally will not get to the root of the problem. The beginning of resolving a crisis is understanding the long-term implications of why someone with an addiction has come to where they are now.
“We’ve seen routinely that people who overdose, sort of find themselves in the same situation they were in before the overdose, are very likely to overdose again,” Tucker said.
save a life
Richmond and Henrico Health Districts offer free fentanyl test strips to reduce the risk of overdose. The strips are used to test for fentanyl in drugs, powders, and injectable pills. Test strips are available at Narcan personal training and community dispensing events, according to the VDH.
Recovery advocates, families and friends also want to stop overdoses. The drug to reverse opioid overdose is known as naloxone, often called Narcan by the brand name, and can be accessed through pharmacies, community organizations, licensed emergency medical services agencies and health departments, according to the VDH.
Loudoun County implemented the Heroin Operations Team Initiative in 2015 to enhance the pilot program for Representatives carrying Narcan, according to the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
“The county is doing a very good job of getting Narcan out to people who have sort of a high frequency,” Tucker said. “It is upon request. Family members can request and have requested.”
revive! This is a virtual opioid overdose training program and weekly educational training program for Virginia residents. The program offers two types of training. One is training participants to better understand opioids, how opioid overdose occurs, risk factors for opioid overdose, and how to respond to emergencies of opioid overdose with naloxone, according to the program’s website.
Other training prepares one to become a REVIVE! Coach and train others.
Anyone can get REVIVE! Free Narcan nasal kit and spray after attending the training according to VDH.
Richmond recently introduced a high-velocity alert program to indicate the presence of illegal or leaked drugs into the community that may be effective or cause an overdose. The program allows people in the greater Richmond community to notify them of an overdose in the area, according to the VDH. People can sign up for alerts here.
In 2015 lawmakers began efforts to increase access to drugs that reverse overdoses. Over the past seven years, lawmakers have also expanded protections to people who report overdose.
The Good Samaritan Act went into effect last July and expands on legislation that was initially introduced in 2015. No one who reports an overdose will be arrested or prosecuted for public intoxication, drinking minors, or purchasing or possessing a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia. A person also has immunity if they perform CPR or naloxone while another person has reported an overdose. The individual must remain at the scene of the accident and identify himself to law enforcement.
“We can’t charge a fee for possession,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t matter how bad one possession is. If it was just possession, it would be exempted under the current code.”
The General Assembly established drug courts, located within the judicial system, to assist individuals with drug or drug related cases and to provide an alternative to imprisonment. Drug courts have been reported to reduce recidivism by allowing individuals to go through extensive treatment options while under heavy supervision, in an effort to increase recovery rates.
Last year, lawmakers unanimously passed a joint resolution establishing August 31 as Virginia’s International Day for Overdose Awareness. The flags of the United States and Virginia will be lowered at half-mast in memory of people who have lost their lives to drug addiction. In the 20-year period between 1999 and 2019, more than 770,000 people died from drug overdoses, according to the ruling.
The resolution recognizes that addiction is a medical disease. The dedicated day aims to raise awareness, encourage discussion of addiction prevalence, implement new policies, remove barriers to treatment, prevent overdose, and address the evolving need for support and resources related to substance use disorder, according to Action.
Although the recent decision declared addiction a disease, Porter asserted that he was an individual unfamiliar with drug use. He said he loves art and creative expression. He always wanted to go to art school and planned to do something to tap into his artistic talents after he settled into his life and got out of probation.
“We are all very talented people,” Porter said. “They have value, but it’s all being overlooked because of drug abuse or alcoholism.”
Written by Faith Reed
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage of a variety of Virginia media.