This is the third and final part of a series about issues related to poverty in Southwest, Southside and Eastern Shore, Virginia.
By August Wallmeyer
It’s hard these days to read a newspaper or hear a broadcast news report without getting an update on Virginia’s opioid epidemic and the deaths resulting from use of this and other illegal drugs. The statistics are staggering. The number of our fellow citizens dying from accidental drug overdoses is extremely discouraging and sad, but it’s hard to actually comprehend the size and scope of the tragedy. The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently found a way to put the carnage in perspective: Recalling the mass shooting at Virginia Tech ten years ago—itself an unimaginable, horrible event that took 33 lives—the Times-Dispatch wrote that the deaths resulting from the misuse of opioids and other drugs in Virginia are equivalent to another Virginia Tech massacre every week! The current annual death rate is more than 1,400 in Virginia alone, a 40 percent increase over the previous year.
And the problem undoubtedly is getting worse, not better. Doing research for my recent book, The Extremes of Virginia, I found that in Southwest, Southside and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the death rate from opioid abuse was 56 percent higher than in Virginia as a whole. And the opioid problem continues to worsen.
Law enforcement and health care providers are becoming overwhelmed with the volume of drug addicts and overdoses. The CEO of a hospital in Smyth County in Southwest Virginia recently pleaded for creation of a task force composed of business, civic groups, churches, government officials, health care providers and others to confront the budgetary and social problems resulting from the drug crisis. Other jurisdictions all across Virginia are struggling with the same situations, proof that the problems are not confined to the rural, poor areas in the Extremes of Virginia. Virtually every locality in the Commonwealth—central Virginia, Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, the Shenandoah Valley—all parts of Virginia are affected. And this drug crisis cuts across all racial, economic and social boundaries. Although the conventional wisdom is that African-Americans are the major “hard” drug users, white males in the 25-55 age group are dying at rates far in excess of other groups.
While government, law enforcement and health care officials scramble urgently to deal with these problems, thoughtful people must ask what are the underlying causes that seem to compel so many to use mind-altering drugs and what are the long-term, permanent solution strategies. I’ve argued in The Extremes of Virginia that Virginia needs to spend serious money, effort and time to try to better understand the core problems that lead not only to use of illegal drugs, but also to higher suicide rates, festering unemployment and poverty, inferior health care and other problems that plague Virginia. The legislature last session took some steps to curb excessive prescribing of opioids, which is a much-needed reaction to the current situation. Additionally, the Virginia Catholic Conference advocated for much-needed funding for overdose reversal kits and expanded addiction treatment services, which was included in this year’s amended budget. While certainly helpful, this “Band-Aid” approach is only that. What we need is more investigation and greater understanding of the underlying causes of our major problems, coupled with sensible, long-term recommendations for improvement. We need long-term strategies in addition to Band-Aids.
August Wallmeyer, a member of the VCC Management Committee, is a former broadcast journalist, a semi-retired lobbyist, and the president of August Wallmeyer Communications. Find “The Extremes of Virginia,” here.