Deaths from heroin and opioid use outnumbered highway fatalities in Virginia for the first time last year, according to state records.
Records show that 728 Virginians died from drug overdoses in 2014, while 700 people died on the state’s roads.
In the greater Fredericksburg area, about 75 people died from opiate overdoses in 2014, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The same area recorded 59 motor-vehicle-related fatalities last year, according to the Virginia Highway Safety Office.
The increase in drug-related deaths comes despite heightened efforts to attack heroin use in the state, a focus that was announced a year ago by Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring.
“The heroin and prescription drug epidemic is a public health issue, a public safety and law enforcement issue and, most importantly, it’s a family issue,” Herring said in a news release.
Highway fatalities have been dropping as drug deaths increase. The highway death toll in 2013 was 741 while there were 661 drug-related deaths. And it 2009, there were 750 traffic fatalities and 504 deaths from heroin and opioids.
Herring’s office outlined the efforts made to help recovering addicts and decriminalize behaviors that can save lives. For instance, new laws were passed that provide immunity to law enforcement officers who administer Naloxone to counteract drug overdoses.
Last week, about 50 Fredericksburg-area residents attended a training on how to use Naloxone. The training is geared toward friends and family members who don’t have medical training, but who could administer the antidote, much like how people use Epipens for allergic reactions.
Chuck Adcock, director of Family Counseling Center for Recovery, told workshop participants that traditional recovery methods seldom work for heroin and other opiates—which have a 90 percent relapse rate. And recovery can be the most dangerous time in an addict’s life, with many overdoses occurring as an addict tries to kick the habit.
“It’s time for another solution, at least a temporary one, which is Naloxone,” Adcock said.
He said the antidote can get an overdose victim to live long enough for other recovery methods.
Moves to increase access to Naloxone were just part of the attorney general’s efforts to combat opiate overdoses. Herring also said during the past year, there have been 28 prosecutions against dealers and traffickers.
Those cases recovered 95.4 kilograms of heroin valued at over $19 million. In addition, during the past year, authorities have also dismantled what is thought to have been the largest heroin-trafficking operation in Hampton Roads.
The state also launched initiatives to familiarize students with the consequences of drug use. Officials are also cracking down on prescription scams.
Herring said last week that he hopes the new statistics help officials realize how urgently solutions are needed to solve the heroin epidemic.
Adcock, with the Family Counseling Center for Recovery, expects the rate of heroin use to increase initially as efforts to stem the flow of prescription painkillers start to work.
“It’s getting harder to abuse pills and heroin is cheaper,” he said. “I think we will see an increase in heroin and then see the opium epidemic slow down.”
Staff Writer Amy Umble contributed to this Associated Press report.