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2017-12-06 / News

County steps up efforts to reduce opioid abuse

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

The Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office has demonstrated that its groundbreaking recovery program can help incarcerated heroin addicts kick the habit. Now the county government is trying to intervene before citizens wind up behind bars.

County Administrator Joe Casey has formed a steering committee to coordinate existing resources that have been devoted to addressing opioid abuse and identify areas in which the local response can be more effective.

One of Casey’s deputies, Sarah Snead, was selected to chair the committee, which comprises 17 employees from a wide range of county departments. The committee met for the first time in October.

“The committee will help us see where our [resource] gaps and overlaps are,” Snead said. “Going forward, we’ll know better what everyone is doing and work as a team.”

Sheriff Karl Leonard speaking at the anniversary celebration of the female Heroin Addiction Recovery Program at the Chesterfield jail in September. ASH DANIELSheriff Karl Leonard speaking at the anniversary celebration of the female Heroin Addiction Recovery Program at the Chesterfield jail in September. ASH DANIELSheriff Karl Leonard, who has brought increased attention to opioid addiction through creation of the jail’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP), said local leaders must be willing to consider creative solutions as they face a “large, very unconventional problem.”

“We can’t keep doing the same thing we’ve done in the past, because it’s not working,” he added.

According to data compiled by The New York Times, drug overdose is now the leading cause of death among people under the age of 50. President Donald Trump in October declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, giving states more flexibility in how they use federal funding to combat addiction.

“We haven’t hit a plateau yet,” said Debbie Burcham, executive director of the local Community Service Board, one of 40 across Virginia that provide services in mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities. “The number of overdoses and deaths continues to rise. That’s scary.”

In less than two years since Leonard launched HARP, it has become a model for other penal institutions across the state. The General Assembly allocated more than $150,000 in the fiscal year 2018 budget to implement it as a pilot program in four Virginia jails. The Board of Supervisors also approved $76,000 in HARP funding for men and women at the county jail.

Burcham, however, said people shouldn’t think they have to be locked up in order to receive effective treatment for their addiction.

The county last year created an intensive outpatient program where citizens can receive nine hours of individual and group therapy per week. It also got a grant from the state to support funding for medical-assisted treatment for county residents.

A prevention grant from a local nonprofit organization, Substance Abuse Free Environments (SAFE), is being used to educate doctors, dentists and even veterinarians about the danger of prescribing opiates for post-operative pain management.

And the county’s drug court program allows certain people who are arrested in Chesterfield or Colonial Heights to get treatment for substance abuse issues while being closely monitored by the court system, counselors, police and probation. Upon successful completion of the program, criminal charges are dismissed. “We’re serving a lot of people in the community,” Burcham said. “There are things we’re doing well and things we’re doing right, but more needs to be done.”

Leonard agreed with Burcham’s contention that jails shouldn’t have to be used as drug treatment centers. He noted that while sheriffs in Henrico County and the city of Richmond have launched similar heroin recovery programs, “none of us want them in our jails.” “We want resources to be available on the outside so people can access them before they get incarcerated,” Leonard said. “There’s already a stigma about being an addict. Throw in having a criminal record and it’s a double stigma. That makes it extremely difficult for people to re-enter society and stay clean.”

Leonard insisted that creating a network of recovery centers, where heroin addicts could be diverted in lieu of incarceration, would be far less expensive than putting them in jail.

It costs taxpayers $117 per day to house one person in the county jail. That works out to more than $42,000 annually.

An increase in the number of recovering heroin addicts also would be expected to generate a corresponding reduction in both overdose-related emergency room visits and property crimes committed to feed their addictions, Leonard said.

“I don’t know if there’s a way to accurately quantify how much money we could save by breaking the cycle of addiction,” he added.

According to Snead, one of the questions the steering committee will consider is whether it’s possible to re-create on the outside the same dynamic that has been so successful in the county jail.

“We need to look at what’s effective, what’s practical and where resources will come from,” she said. “This issue will take years to tackle, but we have to start somewhere.” ¦

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