During my time in the Virginia General Assembly I’ve served as co-chair of the Governor Northam’s Transition Policy Council on Opioid’s and Substance Abuse and spent years on former Governor McAuliffe’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse. During that time, I’ve heard stories from survivors of addiction and their families and seen the progression of the epidemic across the state. It can start in one of many ways — starting with pain management, as young person succumbing to peer pressure, a minor accidentally digesting a prescription, or a baby suffering withdrawal being born into addiction.
As of December 2017, 15 Alexandrian deaths were ruled as opioid overdoses for the year. Additionally, 41.2 of every 100,000 under age 14 in Virginia were hospitalized for overdosing on medication last year. 1.3 million children ages 12- 17 nationwide suffered from addiction in 2014, a number that has likely kept rising. This crisis is affecting our children at record numbers, even those who don’t suffer addiction are impacted through their peers and their families. It is an issue that is being felt at an earlier and earlier age.
There are several clear solutions to slow the spread of opioid addiction. It is vital we provide funding for mental health and treatment programs for addicts. A big boost for this population would be passing Medicaid expansion so those suffering without means can afford treatment for them or their loved ones. Finding a way of reducing the recidivism rate such as counseling, education, and job training so addicts returning from the system can focus their energy on bettering themselves and those around them. I have even worked on legislation to modernize and improve the prescription monitoring program and access to naloxone. One of my takeaways from the many, many hours I have spent in workgroups, stakeholder meetings, and presentations is the need to work across silos and think outside the box.
Last year I met an inspiring woman, Carolyn Weems, a school board member in Virginia Beach, where the opioid crisis is getting worse like many parts of the state. We talked about her personal story and like many before, her daughter had struggled with addiction after receiving opioids due to a surgery. For years she suffered, until age 21 when she died of an overdose. Carolyn then worked to create a more expansive program to educate children K-12 about the dangers of drugs from a young age. A program that will begin to be expanded to the entire state next year once Governor Northam signs my bill HB 1532 into law.
What drew me to the curriculum in Virginia Beach is the level of comprehensiveness. Covering the dangers of accepting medicine from adults to what to avoid in their parent’s drug cabinet. As they grow the curriculum addresses peer-pressure and the underlying causes of addiction, such as mental illness. Later it addresses how quickly addiction can occur. Advocating the proper use of medication starting from a young age so that kids are conscious of addition throughout their childhood is something I believe can make a difference in this epidemic.
Charniele Herring represents Alexandria City’s 46th District in the Virginia General Assembly where she serves as House Minority Caucus Chair and on the Courts of Justice, Counties, Cities, & Towns, and Agriculture, Chesapeake & Natural Resources Committees. See www.charnieleherring.com.