Preventing overdose deaths in Virginia

Published 10:52 pm Thursday, September 11, 2014

By Robert Sharpe

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has announced a 10-step plan to expand health care to Virginians. Step nine is to take bold actions to reduce deaths from prescription drug and heroin abuse.

Last year, more Virginians died of overdose deaths than were killed in car accidents. The prescription drug problem has reached a crisis in Virginia, where some county death rates are the highest in the entire nation.

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McAuliffe intends to reduce the number of drug-related deaths in Virginia and will create a task force to combat prescription drug and heroin abuse.

There is much Virginia can do to reduce overdose deaths. First and foremost, the Virginia General Assembly should pass a Good Samaritan law that provides immunity to drug users who seek medical attention for themselves or a friend in response to an overdose event.

At present, illegal drug users are reluctant to seek medical attention. Attempting to save the life of a friend could result in a murder charge.

Virginia also should expand access to naloxone, a proven opioid overdose antidote that is easily administered by first responders and drug users. The combination of a Good Samaritan law and broader access to naloxone would go a long way toward reducing overdose deaths in Virginia. The biggest obstacle to saving lives is overzealous law enforcement.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has proposed making it easier to prosecute dealers whose drugs cause a fatal overdose. The line between small-time dealers and users is blurred. Increasing penalties will deter life-saving calls to 911.

Moreover, the reason Virginia is seeing an increase in heroin use is because of a crackdown on prescription narcotics. Drug enforcement is driving prescription drug abusers into the arms of Mexican drug cartels. The end result is an increase in overdose risk.

Street heroin purity is inconsistent. A user accustomed to low-quality heroin who uses pure heroin will overdose. The inevitable tough-on-drugs response to overdose deaths threatens public safety.

Attempts to limit drug supply while demand remains constant increase the profitability of drug trafficking. For addictive drugs like heroin, a spike in street prices leads desperate addicts to increase criminal activity to feed desperate habits. The drug war doesn’t fight crime; it fuels crime.

The governor’s task force should recognize that both drug abuse and enforcement can cause harm. Turnout at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings would be dramatically lower if alcoholism were a criminal offense.

Eliminating the penalties associated with illicit drug use would encourage the honest discussion needed to facilitate rehabilitation and save lives.

One final action Virginia can take to reduce overdose deaths is to legalize medical marijuana. New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that states with open medical marijuana access have a 25-percent lower opioid overdose death rate than marijuana prohibition states.

This research finding has huge implications. The phrase “if it saves one life” has been used to justify all manner of drug war abuses. Legal marijuana access has the potential to save thousands of lives.

Virginia should put aside the cultural baggage surrounding illicit drugs and prioritize public health.

Like it or not, drugs are here to stay. Drug policies should reduce the harm associated with both drug abuse and enforcement.

If we could arrest our way out of the problem, there would be no overdose crisis. Despite a massive prison-industrial complex, the U.S. has higher rates of illicit drug use than European Union countries with harm-reduction policies.

It’s time to treat all substance abuse, legal or otherwise, as the public health problem that it is.

Robert Sharpe is a policy analyst with Common Sense for Drug Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming drug policy and expanding harm reduction. Email him at