Both nationally and in Virginia, we’ve seen recent headlines sparking fear over what’s being called a new “heroin epidemic”. Here, legislators recently wrote a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe asking him to establish a task force to fight the growing problem. But not everyone is in agreement on how serious the spread of heroin is, or if the term “epidemic” is even appropriate.
“This is the latest and greatest in terms of fad,” said U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, discussing the heroin problem. “This is one where we know that it is a growing problem. We’ve had a hard time as a country getting our hands around it.”
The consensus, particularly from lawmakers, seems to be that heroin use is climbing at an astronomical rate and something must be done immediately to stop it.
According to the Times Dispatch, the number of heroin overdoses in Virginia rose from 101 in 2011 to 135 in 2012 and 197 in 2013. The areas reporting highest rates of heroin use include Richmond, Hampton Roads, and small towns in the Shenandoah Valley. But some areas aren’t experiencing a problem at all.
“We are not seeing as much heroin here,” said Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman. “Our biggest problem still is prescription drugs and methamphetamine.”
Russell County Sheriff’s Deputy Major Bill Watson agrees. “That’s not to say we haven’t seen it, but we’re not seeing [a lot] of it. It could be a problem, but it’s not a problem now.”
Without doubt, overdose numbers have risen. But whether or not it is at epidemic levels all depends on your definition.
This rising rate is being seen in many states, but the numbers can be deceiving. Forbes explains that although the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported a rise from 166,000 heroin users in 2002 to 335,000 in 2012 (a rise of about 100 percent), it was paltry compared to the 200 percent rise detected from 1993 to 1996 in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.
Further, even at the rates we are seeing now, only a very small percentage of Americans are affected. The number of people using heroin within the past month represented only 0.3 percent of the population in 2012, compared with 0.2 percent in 2002.
Even if this is enough of an increase to warrant significant action, history has shown that shoveling resources into drug enforcement will do nothing to curb the use. The U.S. prison population and failed Drug War are evidence of that.
The term epidemic may be an overstatement on the part of the media and anti-drug officials. But used wisely and funneled into education and social service efforts rather than law enforcement, the federal money Virginia lawmakers are hoping to get for the effort has the potential to do good.
In the meantime, police across the state and their bosses will be looking to arrest and prosecute those suspected of heroin possession and distribution. While it could be an opportunity for addicts to get help, it could also serve to lock them up for months or even years.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)