Drug Policy and Ending the Opioid Epidemic

Addiction to opioids and prescription painkillers is an epidemic that is ravaging our Commonwealth. More Virginians now die from opioid overdoses than car accidents and, according to Virginia’s State Health Commissioner, emergency visits for heroin overdoses in the first nine months of 2016 were up 89% compared to the previous year. A tragedy of this magnitude cuts across race, gender, socio-economic standing, and political boundaries, leaving no community untouched. It has torn apart families and overwhelmed first responders and medical professionals by the sheer number of cases they face every day. A crisis like this demands immediate action.

I applaud the decision by Governor McAuliffe in November 2016 to declare the opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency in Virginia and to make naloxone more accessible to the public. These steps have helped to raise awareness and de-stigmatize the crisis while offering further support to those trying to save lives. This administration has made tremendous progress on a difficult problem.  

Addiction should not be perceived as a crime, but as an illness.  We must have a frank conversation about how our communities can help those who are currently suffering alone.  We must ensure that first responders, medical professionals, law enforcement, and community leaders are part of the conversation about solutions from day one, but also that they have the tools and resources they need to carry out those solutions and address this epidemic as a public health emergency.

We must improve the availability of and access to treatment and recovery services in the Commonwealth; work with Virginia’s medical providers to reduce prescriptions of opioids for chronic pain and limit the length of these prescriptions; and further increase access to naxolone.  As Governor, I will actively work to deconstruct the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental illness and fight to ensure that Virginians get the support they need.

I also believe that it’s time for a commonsense review of drug policy that’s honest, health-focused, and informed by the evidence. Today Virginia has among the harshest penalties for drug possession, even of small levels, despite the costly failure of this approach. Virginia, like many states, also has a pattern of unequal application of these laws, with African Americans making up a vastly disproportionate share of marijuana convictions. This policy has cost our state tens of millions of dollars a year for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, and painfully impacted countless families and communities.