FBI director to Henrico crowd: ‘We cannot arrest our way out of’ opioid problem

FBI Director James Comey (right) and DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg (left) address a crowd at Glen Allen High School during a discussion about opioid abuse Mar. 1. (Caitlin Helsley for the Henrico Citizen)
Citizens of Henrico country came together with local law enforcement, FBI Director James Comey and DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg to discuss the opioid epidemic Mar. 1 at Glen Allen High School.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” Comey told the audience.

The FBI is working to crack down on the supply of the drugs and to drive up the price of street opioids to make them as unattractive as possible, but truly solving the problem requires a community effort, he said.

“It’s like bailing out a boat with a hole – it will keep filling up,” Comey said. “The answer is what is represented in this room, which is attacking this problem from as many sides as possible.”

Part of the solution is also education and involvement, he said. Comey mentioned the 360 DEA Strategy, which takes a three-pronged approach to the opioid epidemic through coordination among law enforcement actions against the cartels, going after DEA registrants operating outside the law, and community outreach.

Henrico County and the Heroin Task Force sponsored the Community Summit on the Heroin/Opioid Epidemic with the purpose of engaging the community to find solutions. The auditorium of Glen Allen HS was three-quarters filled with eager citizens ready to learn about the epidemic and start a conversation about how to stop it.

Ninety-one Americans – including an average of three from Virginia – die each day due to an opioid overdose, according to Henrico Health District Director Susan Fischer Davis said. There is at least one death in Henrico County each week due to an opioid overdose, on average, she said. There were 47 opioid related deaths in 2016 in Henrico – a 27-percent increase from 2015.

In Virginia, there were 1,079 opioid-related deaths last year – nearly double the 2012 total of 541, Davis said.

Heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, carfentanil, and hydrocodone are just some of the opioids that are being abused by Henrico citizens, she said. The rates of heroin and other opioid-related deaths increased 16 percent all across all demographics and the entire country in 2015, the most recent year for which the CDC has data, but the biggest increase was seen in white males ages 25-44.

While the numbers and data are important, Rosenberg pointed out that they can seem scary and can be hard to conceptualize, so he chose to use an analogy to put the epidemic in perspective.

“Imagine the Pulse [Orlando night club] shooting happening three times a day 365 days in a row and you will have a sense of the crisis that is facing our country right now,” Rosenberg said.

Someone's addiction to opioids usually begins with the consumption of an opioid prescribed to them or a family member, Rosenberg said. When they run out of the pills, they turn to the streets in search of something cheaper that will give them the same high.

The heroin sold on the streets is much more dangerous than prescription opioids. Much of the heroin on the street is cut with fentanyl and 50 times more potent than heroin, Rosenberg said. Fentanyl can kill a person simply by coming in contact with the skin, he said.

Most of the heroin available on the street is coming from Mexico, Comey said. The transportation lines have been shortened by growing poppy plants in Mexico, which lowers the price of opioids and increases their purity.

American culture lends itself to accepting addiction, Rosenberg said.

“We can change the culture in this country, and have done it before, but it is really really hard to do,” he said.

To help change the culture, DEA created a movie entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” which was shown at the summit. It features people who are battling opioid addictions and others who have lost loved ones because of opioids. It offers advice about how to help those who are addicted and left many people in the audience in tears.

During a panel discussion following the speakers and movie, Henrico Sheriff Michael Wade said nearly 1,500 people detoxed from opioids while in jail last year in the county, and in January and February of this year, 270 inmates did so.

Wade said he believes that programs such as the Orbit Program can help addicts in jail recover though. Participants in the program attend 12 weeks of RISE classes at the jail to learn how to combat their addiction and then serve on a work crew, through which they work under jail supervision, before finally advancing to work release and home incarceration.

“The theory is the longer we can keep them under our control and allow them get control of their lives, the better chance they have at being successful,” Wade said.

There were 18 participants of the Orbit program in the audience, and each one either clapped or nodded in agreement with Wade’s comments.

One participant of the Orbit program, Kelly Andrews, said that she is proud to be in the program because it is keeping her clean and sober.

Brittney Welsch is a recent graduate of Henrico County Drug Court, which she said helped turn her life around/

“The only thing that helped me was the structure and the care and love that this program provided me,” Welsch said. “If you are open and honest with yourself you can change your life.”

Panel members also discussed the fact that there is no specific profile for the kind of person who is most likely to become an opioid addict.

“These are not bad kids – they are my kids, they are your kids, they are your neighbors’ kids,” said Jenny Derr, a mother who lost her son to an opioid overdose.

After the summit, many community organizations that work to stop the opioid epidemic hosted tables in the lobby so community members could find more ways to get involved.

Ginger Gutting, a citizen of Chesterfield County, said she attended the summit because she believes that people need to know the facts before standing together to “tackle and combat this huge problem.”

“Everybody needs to be loved and cared for, but we are all too busy to do that,” Gutting said.
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Each month, the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Richmond Chapter conducts support group meetings to provide the community with an opportunity to meet for mutual support and to exchange coping skills. A Rare Dementia Support Group, for caregivers and individuals with other dementias, will meet at 2 p.m. at the VCU Neurological Orthopedic Wellness Center, 11958 W. Broad St. For details, call 967-2580. Full text

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