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Rise in Opioid Deaths Prompts Shift in Attitudes

Facing Addition

As Virginia's opioid overdose death toll continues to rise, community leaders are searching for ways to counter the trend. In our series Facing Addiction, WCVE's Saraya Wintersmith reports that for some, the difference between the response to today's drug crisis and that of several decades ago, is striking.


There’s a two-storey colonial house in Henrico’s Lakeside neighborhood that’s home to 21 people in recovery. One of them is Kurt Smith. He’s been struggling with addiction for half his life.

Kurt Smith: I experienced heroin probably at 20, 21. Loved it and I started using intravenously at that time and it progressed.

As a 51 year-old African-American, he’s lived through the war on drugs and the crack epidemic that saw harsh criminal punishments for drug possession.

Kurt Smith

Smith: Those of us that were incarcerated as a result of breaking the law motivated by substance abuse and dependence, that became the treatment. How do we fix this problem? Well, just keep arresting them and arrest them for longer periods of time.

These days, there’s an opioid crisis and the face of the typical user has changed. Smith says he also senses the government and the public are thinking about the problem differently.

Smith: And I’m not saying that I’m not concerned – Yeah, I’m concerned. I mean, I care about people. But, you know, the fact that it’s the Caucasian younger people that are using and overdosing and dying has resulted in, you know, they want to do something about it.

The majority of fatal drug overdose deaths in Virginia are whites between the ages of 24 and 54, that’s according to data from Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 3500 whites died from opioids in all age groups statewide, compared to about 500 blacks.


Henry Brownstein: All policies always evolve, but they evolve very slowly. And historically, the drug policy in this country has not been race-neutral.

Henry Brownstein is a researcher and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University - he’s been studying drugs and drug policy for more than 30 years. He says the idea of race as a change catalyst has merit, but there are also other factors are also at play. One of them is the growing body of research on effective drug measures.

Brownstein: If we can get polices that are less oriented towards seeing drug involvement as crime, and less oriented towards controlling the problem, and instead, managing the problem and dealing with people, and thinking about it in terms of health, that would help everybody.

And that’s exactly what one of the most powerful drug policy reform advocates says he wants to do.

Mark Herring: Bringing resources to support those who are struggling with addiction makes sense.

Since taking office in 2014, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s administration has backed new laws that make naloxone more widely available and encourage people to report overdoses without fear of arrest.

While Herring and leaders nationally seek new ways to stem the opioid epidemic, he rejects the notion that the problem is getting more attention and funding because it’s affecting a majority white demographic.

Herring: It’s being treated as a crisis because so people are dying. Heroin and prescription pain killers don't distinguish between where you come from or what your background is. Every ethnicity is affected by it, and every corner of the commonwealth. It’s an urban problem, it’s a suburban problem, it’s a rural problem. I’d be the first to admit that maybe our drug policies in the past, back in the ‘90s, might not have treated addiction as we should have, but that doesn’t mean that we should adhere to the old policies. What it means is that we need to treat addiction as a health crisis. And we need to learn from our policies of the past to try to help people and make things better.


Herring says his office is also stepping up efforts to go after traffickers and dealers and to punish medical professionals who overprescribe and divert opioids into the black market.

Back at the recovery house, Kurt Smith and his room mates say they try to hold each other accountable. The wider shifts in policies, Smith says, will expand recovery options and help more people get well.

Smith: There’s more treatment centers that are popping up. There’s more interventions in our jails and institutions now, and now the penal system is really seeing that this is a problem and the answer is not incarceration.

Saraya Wintersmith, WCVE News.