Va. opioid overdoses hit new high

Illustration by Norine King
Illustration by Norine King


Illustration by Norine King
Illustration by Norine King

The bottom third of a sectioned-off piece of the wall at the McShin Foundation’s intake office pays homage to lives lost to addiction. Scraps of newspaper — excerpts of obituaries, names, faces and notes are subtle reminders of a growing epidemic.

Inches to the right, the rest of the wall is covered in photos of smiling faces, separated only by a faint line of demarcation.

“This is how we keep track of people when they leave housing,” said Michael Quinn, the intake specialist at the McShin Foundation — a local non-profit recovery community organization. “If they’re doing well they’re above the line. People will come in all the time and kind of shift things around so we can keep better track of how people are doing.”

Unfortunately, not everyone’s face remains above the halfway mark — and the rate of opioid-related overdoses in Virginia is multiplying rapidly.

According to a January policy brief by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, nearly 80 percent of Virginia’s nearly 1,000 fatal overdoses in 2014 were due to prescription painkillers or heroin. The CDC stated in a January report that Virginia was one of 14 states with statistically significant increases in the rate of drug overdoses from 2013 to 2014.

Nationally, 61 percent of drug overdoses in 2014 were from opioids, including heroin. Heroin overdose death rates increased by 26 percent from 2013 to 2014 and have more than tripled since 2010, according to the CDC and NIHLast week, president Barack Obama announced a proposed $1.1 billion in funding over the next two years to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that’s claimed more lives in the last three years than ever before.

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe released his task force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse’s implementation plan in October. At McShin, Quinn said opiate addiction is exceedingly the most common — about 60 percent.

Quinn, like all other administrators at the foundation, went through the McShin’s peer-to-peer program personally. He has been clean from opiates for a little more than a year. The foundation’s CEO has been sober for nine years; the director of operations claims five; the founder, John Shinholser, more than 30.

“It’s an everyday battle still,” Quinn said. “I have a sponsor, I go to meetings — it’s working —and people can relate to us and can’t use the excuse of ‘oh well, you haven’t been there, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ because yeah, I have been there, and I do know.”

Quinn partially attributes the sharp rise in abuse to more potent, and available, heroin.

“A lot of dealers are cutting the heroin with phenobarbital, which is a deadly combination, and the other thing is heroin’s become more of a popular drug in suburban and upper-class neighborhoods, so it’s becoming more acceptable,” Quinn said.

This assessment mirrors trends across the state.

According to Fairfax County officials, heroin-related deaths in Northern Virginia increased 164 percent between 2011 and 2013. In Fairfax County, from 2013 to 2014, the number of deaths from heroin overdoses doubled.

“It was like when I was high I could live in this fantasy all the time that was, ‘I’m gonna go to school tomorrow, and fold my laundry, and start working out, and cook dinner, but as soon as I came down my only concern was getting back to that place of contemplative productivity by getting another hit,” said *Nick, a Fairfax County native.

Now 21-years-old and seven months into a treatment program in Florida, Nick tried prescription pain killers for the first time at 16.

“It progressed from whenever I could get them, to raiding medicine cabinets to finding my own dealers for the next three years,” Nick said. “I started using every day at 19 and that continued until about 20, and then I was injecting.”

Nick said his parents were unaware of his growing addiction until his dad had to cover a $500 drug debt about nine months before he went to treatment.

“It was when I started using heroin in addition to the pills, and the unmanageability during the times when I had no drugs was too much to bear, that I decided to get help or I was going to die. So I checked into treatment,” Nick said. “My parents didn’t know I was IVing until we got to the ER the day I asked for help.”

Quinn said he hears stories like this all too often, and the McShin Foundation works to erase the stigma associated with addiction and getting help.

“When somebody says they’re an addict, people think of them as this nasty junkie person you don’t want to be with,” Quinn said. “The media always portrays the problem — the arrests and drug dealers — but they never show the solution, which is people recovering and living regular lives.”

For the McShin Foundation, now in its twelfth year, Quinn said the rate of recovery is higher than at most treatment centers.

According to Quinn, traditional centers typically have an 18 to 20 percent success rate — which is determined by a year of sobriety — whereas success rates at McShin are in the ballpark of 40 to 50 percent.

Because the McShin Foundation is a non-profit and does not receive any government funding and insurance companies don’t recognize the program, Quinn said treatment does come out of pocket for individuals and families.

“If you go to a traditional treatment center, the copay and deductible is still $10-20,000,” Quinn said. “And you’re investing in someone’s life. My parents tell me all the time the best investment they ever made was getting their son back — and that’s priceless.”

The governor, and state lawmakers across party lines, seem to have taken note of this too.

During the 2015 Virginia legislative session, lawmakers made naloxone — a potentially life-saving opioid-antagonist administered in the event of an overdose — more widely accessible to law enforcement and healthcare providers.

Some of McAuliffe’s task force recommendations currently being implemented include developing a state website as an informational hub on prescription pill and heroin abuse, an opioid educational curriculum for law enforcement, reducing the stigma associated with addiction and increasing the availability of peer-support services.

The McShin Foundation is dedicated to many of the same goals. Quinn said the foundation just submitted a bill to the General Assembly asking for $5 million over the next two years to fund pilot programs and collaboration with law enforcement, as well as more widely service opiate detox, residential housing and reducing recidivism.

“In New Jersey right now the police get paid by recovery organizations to arrest somebody and take them to treatment instead of jail, depending on the circumstance,” Quinn said. “Addicts don’t need incarceration, they need treatment. 80 percent of addicts are locked up because they were messed up. Long term incarceration doesn’t do much good — it just costs the state money.”

According to the VCU School of Medicine’s January policy brief, untreated substance abuse costs the state and local governments more than $600 million annually.

“Virginia’s opioid epidemic and untreated substance abuse are killing hundreds of Virginians and costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars each year,” said brief lead author and assistant professor at VCU Andrew Barnes.

For young adults like Nick, who is still active in a treatment program, this reality is less intense than that of watching friends die.

“A close friend of mine relapsed and overdosed on Dec. 18. It’s hard seeing someone give up on themselves and go back to their old ways,” Nick said. “I’m a fear-based person, but my fear of dying from this disease is the reason I keep doing what I need to in order to stay sober.”

Quinn said the McShin Foundation offers three tiers of treatment programs and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

The foundation provides rapid, same-day detox which tapers the individual off opioids across a five to seven day period. He also said what separates McShin is there’s no waitlist.

“If someone calls me, they can come in today, see the doctor and get put in a bed that day,” Quinn said. “If someone needs help, there’s always a bed available.”

VCU Rams in Recovery on-campus meetings

  • AA Meeting, Wednesdays, Noon, University Student Commons
  • AA Meeting, Fridays, 8:30 p.m., Hibbs Hall, room 403
  • NA Meeting, Sundays, 8 p.m., Hibbs Hall, room 328
  • SMART Recovery, Mondays, 7:15 p.m


Executive Editor, Sarah King

Sarah King, photo by Brooke MarshSarah is a junior in the honors college studying political science and philosophy of law. She is a copyeditor for INK Magazine and reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring, Sarah worked as an editorial intern for Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

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