Opioids in Alexandria: Two-year surge has city responders working overtime

Alexandria is not immune to the nationwide opioid epidemic, as overdoses, arrests and those seeking treatment have all grown exponentially here in the past two years. This multi-part series examines various facets of the crisis, from statistics to stories of Alexandrians affected by the opioid scourge.

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By James Cullum | jcullum@alextimes.com

Alexandria is feeling the potent effects of the national opioid epidemic, with a sharp increase in the past two years in the number of overdoses coupled with a shortage of treatment options for those addicted to heroin and synthetic opioids.

As the problem becomes more lethal in Alexandria, the Alexandria Police Department is investing its resources into fighting back. Though arrests for opioids are up, city police are focusing less on users and more on arresting those who are supplying the drugs.

For Lieutenant Michael Kochis, commander of the police department’s vice and narcotics section, his experience on the frontlines of fighting the rise of opioids in Alexandria has been eye opening.

“It’s been keeping us busy,” Kochis said. “I think over the past year… the detectives in my unit probably now have a different perspective on heroin users. I know I have. I didn’t necessarily understand why someone would do that to themselves, but then when you start seeing and speaking to these folks, they are legitimately sick and they can’t stop.”

Opioid use Forty-four Alexandria residents died due to opioid overdoses between 2012 and 2016, according to statistics from the city’s health department. The number of Alexandria residents treated for opioid overdoses in regional hospitals jumped to 105 in 2016, up from 88 overdoses in 2015. So far in 2017, there have been 41 Alexandrians treated for opioid overdoses in emergency rooms, and if the trend continues, the city is on track to have an all time high of 123 overdoses by the end of the year. Unfortunately, concurrent with Alexandria’s spike in overdoses is a downturn in available treatment options due to staffing shortages in the city’s opioid treatment facilities. City spokesman Craig Fifer said during both FY16 and FY17, the treatment program was closed for new admissions other than pregnant women for extended periods of time. In addition, 26 percent more addicts in the city’s overall substance abuse treatment programs in 2016 admitted to using opioids than in 2015.

“It’s been keeping us busy,” Kochis said. “I think over the past year… the detectives in my unit probably now have a different perspective on heroin users. I know I have. I didn’t necessarily understand why someone would do that to themselves, but then when you start seeing and speaking to these folks, they are legitimately sick and they can’t stop.”

Opioid use

Forty-four Alexandria residents died due to opioid overdoses between 2012 and 2016, according to statistics from the city’s health department. The number of Alexandria residents treated for opioid overdoses in regional hospitals jumped to 105 in 2016, up from 88 overdoses in 2015. So far in 2017, there have been 41 Alexandrians treated for opioid overdoses in emergency rooms, and if the trend continues, the city is on track to have an all time high of 123 overdoses by the end of the year.

Concurrent with Alexandria’s spike in overdoses is a sharp increase in the number of patients in the city’s opioid treatment program. Of the 649 people in all of the city’s substance abuse treatment programs in 2016, there was a 26 percent increase in the number of addicts who admitted to using opioids. The Alexandria Health Department reported that the city’s opioid treatment program saw 188 patients who admitted to using opioids, up from 131 patients – or 44 percent – from the previous year.

“For us that’s alarming because every single one of those people are in danger of overdosing because opioids are so powerful,” said Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the city’s health department. “Opioids really destroy the individual, the community, the household and the workplace – wherever it is. Not just an individual. We understand addictions are a disease of the brain. When a person gets to that certain point with opioids, the brain craves it so much, it is the overriding modus operandi in their life. That’s all they look for is the experience with the opioid.”

New danger

Fentanyl, a cheap and powerful synthetic drug that gives dealers a bigger bang for their buck, is showing up more and more mixed with seized heroin, according to Kochis, presenting a new risk for users. The difference in the drug’s street value is stark: A kilogram of heroin is $83,000, according to Kochis, versus $1,200 for a kilogram of fentanyl listed on the dark web. Fentanyl, however, can prove deadly for even the most hardened addicts.

For Liz Wixson, director for the city’s clinical and emergency services, this Russian Roulette approach to using street drugs is especially dangerous – and it makes it increasingly difficult to stop.

“There’s no drug label on a dose of opioids that you use on the street. They can overdose the first time they shoot up, or the 100th time,” she said “It has nothing to do with allure. When they stop, the physical consequences are brutal. Take the worst flu you have ever had and multiply it by 1000. They are desperate to make that feeling go away. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.”

The city’s response

City officials say they are combatting the problem to the best of their ability. Mayor Allison Silberberg touted the city’s multidisciplinary approach to fighting opioid abuse.

“I’m proud of how our city is proactive with this issue because these addictions destroy families and lives, jobs, family relationships, and, of course, can kill you,” she said. “Here in Alexandria, I’m very proud of how we are committed to getting out in front of this issue. We want to help our residents. Other communities have far worse situations, and we have a very good approach to this, and it’s very proactive and very compassionate.”

The city’s opioid workgroup, formed two years ago, meets bi-monthly and is made up of representatives from the city’s health and police departments, sheriff’s office, fire department, emergency medical service department and representatives from Inova Alexandria Hospital.

The police’s approach

Meanwhile, Alexandria’s narcotics unit is focused more on stopping drug trafficking organizations than on arresting individual addicts. With this approach, it’s not surprising that the number of arrests for heroin possession in Alexandria remains slight, though it, too, is trending upward: There have been 10 arrests so far in 2017 – which puts the city on pace for about 30 for the year – compared with 15 in 2016 and eight in 2015.

The size of a recent drug bust sheds light on the growth in demand for opioids. In March, Alexandria police headed a regional, undercover investigation that led to the arrest of 11 individuals suspected of drug dealing, including 54-year-old Alexandrian Robert E. Hunt.

On March 10, at 11:10 a.m., an undercover officer with the Alexandria vice and narcotics section bought heroin from Hunt, who was later pulled over in a traffic stop with his alleged supplier, 57-year-old Anthony Terry, and arrested with $4,100 in pre-recorded money from Virginia State Police investigative funds.

“That was our case that we worked with the Virginia State Police,” Kochis said. “It took significant resources and money, and when I went to the chief and requested the resources…He didn’t bat an eye.”

According to the police department, the opioid surge contrasts with a decline in overall drug incidents that required police involvement over the past two years. The number of overall incidents dropped to 530 in 2016, versus the 589 incidents reported in 2015. Marijuana remains the most-used drug, making up 80 percent of all incidents. Alexandria Police reported 423 marijuana-related incidents in 2016, down from 475 in 2015.

Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said that there’s no specific sector of the city that’s prone to opioid or heroin use.

“The use of drugs is not tied to one community or social economic stature. Tragically, people from all walks of life get involved in the drug culture,” he said. “It’s not easy or cheap to get prescription opioids, and people have gotten to using a more economic option, which is drugs off the street – cheap, but not very smart because of the potential complications involved with synthetics.”

The human element

In the end, it all comes back to the suffering individual, and city police realize that addicts are human beings with a terrible problem.

“When there is an overdose, I’m called,” Kochis said, “and we send a detective in. They will talk to the overdose victim, and then give them a services card, what they should do and where they should go to get help.”

The card is from the Alexandria department of community and human services. On one side it lists important phone numbers and websites. On the opposite side, it says, “If you are facing substance use issues, help is available. Treatment can help. The first step is a phone call.”

 

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