VA Crackdown on Heroin Focuses on Punishment

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring recently detailed a series of initiatives to combat a rise in fatal overdoses of heroin and prescription opiates. Herring broadcast his five-part action plan on Sept 8, at an annual conference of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police in Roanoke.

According to the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, more than 800 deaths in the Commonwealth were attributed to drug overdoses in 2012. Heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013. Each and every region of Virginia has experienced an increase in heroin fatalities during that period, including a 164 percent increase in Northern Virginia, a 94 increase in Hampton Roads, and a 50 percent increase in the Richmond metro area.

Herring detailed his five-part action plan as follows: prosecutions and partnerships, development of legislative solutions, accountability for professionals who make prescriptions illegally available, prevention and education, and executive summit on heroin and prescription drug abuse.

Under prosecutions and partnerships, Herring’s plan calls for the OAG to work with local Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts to prosecute heroin fatality cases at the federal level.

Regional prosecutors from the Office of Attorney General in Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, and Western Virginia have been instructed to prioritize heroin and prescription abuse cases. Prosecutors can either assist local Commonwealth’s Attorneys with complex cases, take them to one of Virginia’s twelve multi-jurisdictional grand juries, or work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute cases federally.

With the support of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Dana Boente, an OAG prosecutor is being placed in Hampton Roads for the first time, with the charge to prioritize heroin and prescription drug cases.

Under the new “Good Samaritan” provision those who witness an overdose will be able to call for help in an emergency medical situation and receive limited legal immunity.

The OAG will also be more aggressive in its dealing with professionals caught prescribing medication to those who are using it for recreational purposes. The Attorney General plans to seek suspension, revocation, or jail time for those convicted.

Under prevention and education, Herrings plan lists:

  • A module dealing specifically with prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse to be added to the Virginia Rules program, the Office of Attorney General’s comprehensive program to help middle and high school age children make good decisions and avoid trouble with the law.
  • Training materials, including a specially produced video, will be developed to show law enforcement what to expect when they arrive at the scene of an overdose, how to respond, and any new laws that come out of this year’s General Assembly session.
  • “Prescription Drug Take-Back” training materials will be updated so police departments and community organizations can help keep unused prescriptions off the streets.

An executive summit has been scheduled for October 2, 2014 that will include the OAG, the Secretary of Public Safety, the Office of Homeland Security, and the Department of Criminal Justice. The coalition of law enforcement leaders, prosecutors, and health professionals will work to determine what laws and regulations should be enacted to decrease the use of and deaths caused by prescription opiates and heroin. Leaders from communities that have been deeply affected by this ongoing issue will be invited to the day-long summit in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Noticeably absent from the summit description is any mention of criminal and drug possession defense attorneys. While drug possession is a serious offense, and we applaud the inclusion of medical, health, and community representatives, we would like to point out that a major part of the equation has been left out. As for the five-part plan, enacting more laws and pushing addicts into federal court where they are subject to tougher punishments will do little to nothing to address the problems of addiction and overdose. We should, instead, focus on the root causes for these addictions and overdoses by pouring our time and energy into health services and prevention and education programs. That is if Virginia is truly serious about saving lives.

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