Law Enforcement Grapples with Public Health Approach to Opioid Abuse

By K. Burnell Evans and John Ramsey Richmond Times-Dispatch 

RICHMOND — Left on a Chesterfield County street wrapped in a blanket, 20-year-old Taylor Garris was alone and dying when the paramedics arrived.

That is not the scenario lawmakers envisioned for overdose victims when they passed a “Good Samaritan” law last year aimed at slowing the rising tide of heroin and painkiller deaths by encouraging people to call 911 and stay until help arrives.

A compromise struck before the bill became law — which requires callers to participate in a criminal investigation, if asked — underscores tension between an emerging view of substance abuse as a public health issue and the decades-old, zero-tolerance legacy of the war on drugs.

“That was the price of success,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who authored the bill.

“It concerns me in the sense that I don’t want people to be inhibited from coming forward. From the same token, I’m not averse to the fact that, when there’s an overdose and they pick up the kids, they’re going to say, ‘Where’d you get the drugs?’ ”

Federal and state authorities say they want a new approach that emphasizes treatment over incarceration. But even as they work to shift resources, the number of people arrested with painkillers or heroin has doubled in the past eight years in Virginia.

Heroin killed nearly twice as many people last year as it did in 2012. And more than 4,400 Virginians have died from painkiller and heroin overdoses since 2007.

“We’re making more arrests, yet more people are using,” said Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security. “We’re arresting more people, but the problem hasn’t gone away. I think that confirms the adage that we can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Garris, who is recovering at Chippenham Hospital, had been hooked on drugs for years, just like her older half-brother, Travis. He died of a heroin overdose March 4, days after learning she was in the hospital.

Both had been in and out of jail and rehab, and family members said both had overdosed twice previously.

In Chesterfield, police say the number of people who overdosed on heroin and other opioid substances in the first few months of 2016 is almost equal to the total for all of 2014.

People in the Garris family knew from experience to lock away their pocketbooks and medicine cabinets if Taylor or Travis were visiting.

Travis once pawned his aunt’s old horseshoe ring, a ring she says is worth thousands of dollars, for $75. It got to the point that neither was welcome at times in the homes of the people who had tried most to help them.

“Some people you hold in your heart, but you can’t hold them in your arms,” said Carolyn Garris, Travis and Taylor’s grandmother.

Thefts by desperate addicts hoping to score money for drugs are common but difficult to track. But at the Henrico County Jail, larceny is among the top two charges for men and women undergoing opiate detox, of which there were 944 in 2015, Sheriff Michael Wade said. That’s up from 897 in 2014.

“This county used to pretend it didn’t have a heroin problem,” Wade said. “But they can’t ignore it now.”

Moran said he plans to ask prosecutors across the state whether anyone has used Virginia’s Good Samaritan Law since it took effect in July.

Experts say the law is among the weakest of its kind in the nation, in part because it offers a defense for charges instead of immunity from them and in part because it requires people to snitch.

“If you haven’t cleared the decks and said, ‘Don’t worry, we want you to save a life,’ then the intent of this legislation is going to be undermined,” said Daniel Raymond, policy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national advocacy group for helping those addicted to drugs.

“Anytime you’re in that situation where there’s a overdose and you have to make that split-second decision, is it safe to call 911, all these caveats start to push that decision toward no.”

And while people such as Moran, who was chairman of a state task force on the heroin and painkiller epidemic, are helping lead the push to deal with addiction as a public health crisis instead of a law enforcement one, the state’s treatment systems are so overwhelmed that families often feel most relaxed when their addicted loved ones are in jail.

“When my kids was in jail, I was actually happy. I had a peace,” said Coy Garris, father of Travis and Taylor. “I knew they were safe, to a certain extent.”

He’s not alone.

Wade said family members of addicted inmates incarcerated in the county jail have declined to post even $100 bond, so that their loved one will be forced to detox.

“This is the only way a lot of folks will get care,” he said. “It’s not just an individual problem; it’s a family problem, and it affects people from all walks of life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Virginia is adding about $20 million for substance abuse treatment improvements in the just-adopted state budget in hopes of eliminating waiting lists, so addicts can get help when they need it. On Friday, the state announced that it had won a federal grant for $325,000 to help treat people addicted to painkillers or heroin.

And the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed legislation co-patroned by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, that would boost treatment for addicts and expand drug prevention programs by at least $300 million over five years.

Kaine said Friday that the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act seeks to treat the surging opioid and heroin epidemic like the public health crisis it is. The 94-1 vote in favor of the measure signals an evolving approach to a problem once seen as a moral failing, he said.

“Our strategy was like 80 percent public safety, 20 percent health; it needs to be more like 50-50,” Kaine said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill’s provisions would take $725 million to fund; it’s unclear whether more money will be forthcoming or when the House of Representatives will consider the measure.