Virginia’s attorney general came to listen and he got an earful in Tazewell July 19.
Mark Herring was in Town to discuss the drug epidemic with educators, law enforcement, treatment professionals and those who work with prevention. Herring told the group that his office has stepped up prosecution of dealers and traffickers but that is not enough. “It requires a multi faceted approach we can’t arrest our way out of it,’ he said.
He said 60,000 people nationwide died from overdoses and 1,100 of those were in Virginia. Resources such as a Good Samaritan law to protect people who assist overdose victims and allowing police officers to carry and administer naloxone were among the initiatives Herring cited.
Major Harold Heatley of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office told Herring doctors and pharmacists need to be held accountable for the drugs they dispense. Heatley said it is disgraceful that buying a beer or a pack of cigarettes requires identification but no one ever asks for identification from someone picking up a prescription.
“We hold clerks in convenience stores and supermarkets to a higher standard than we do for prescriptions,’ he said. Herring said doctors have resisted efforts to make the prescription monitoring program mandatory.
Doctor shopping and drug diversion were other topics addressed. Tazewell Police Chief Dave Mills said his department had recently indicted a man from West Virginia who couldn’t get a prescription filled there and came to Tazewell.
Both Mills and Heatley said Suboxone and subotex are the most widely diverted drugs in the county.
Harm diversion is one reason treatment specialists at the meeting said suboxone gets diverted. They are not shooting up or using oxycontin to satisfy their craving and they can cruise along until they can get treatment
Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Dennis said this area is way ahead of the rest of the state in tackling the drug problem. He said the area started dealing with an inordinate number of overdose deaths and other drug related problems in the late 1990’s.
He said Tazewell County had the first drug court west of Roanoke and it was a non funded drug court. Dennis and Cheryl Robinette, who coordinates the drug court program, said in kind funding from three counties and grant money has made the program work.
Robinette said working with coalitions such as SATRIRA and SAMSA have allowed the area to make progress in the battle against drugs. Herring said drug courts are effective and save taxpayers money. “If someone is incarcerated for using drugs and their addiction not dealt with they will be back,’ he said.
Every county in southwest Virginia now has drug court and that along with efforts from faith based programs such as celebrate recovery were cited as some of the most effective actions against the drug problem. Those attending the meeting told the attorney general that improving the economy and lifestyle of the area was the biggest need.
“If you don’t improve the economy you are putting people back into problems,’ Dennis said. A recent study by the United Way of Southwest Virginia showed that nearly half of the households in Bristol struggled with poverty and that 29 percent of the households in Washington County had problems affording basic necessities.
These were people working fulltime and not making enough to keep their family supported and safe. Herring said employment is a boost for people in recovery.
Supervisor Mike Hymes cited the fact Herring was a former county supervisor in Loudon County and asked him if the $8 million Tazewell County spent on housing people in the regional jail wouldn’t be better spent on education and other needs. A long term care facility was another big need cited for the area.
The Laurels in Lebanon is a detox center but the area has no long term recovery facility.
Robinette said the area also has a need for housing for recovering addicts as well as homeless people. School Superintendent Dr. George Brown, assistant Superintendent Dr. Gary Williams and the principals of the three county high schools, and DARE Instructor Glen Keen also took part in the discussion.
Herring applauded the county for using the documentary Heroin: the Hardest Hit in its prevention programs. Brown said it was a very powerful and in your face video.
The principals cited the county’s mandatory drug testing for athletes and said health, social studies and physical education teachers incorporate the anti drug message into their curriculum.
Keen said the DARE program is moving into the middle and high schools and urged the state to support the program. Herring said people must learn that medication isn’t safe simply because it is prescribed.
He said senior citizens also have to be careful and cited that the 55-65 age group, has the third highest number of overdose deaths. He said everyone has a role in the battle against drugs.