Virginia Lawmakers Take Softer Tone on Opioids Compared to Previous Drug Epidemics

When lawmakers introduce legislation it’s typically based on their constituent’s wants and needs. But for some lawmakers, like Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, the issues can become personal.

Bell opened up about his son, who became addicted to opioids after injuring his neck in a car accident, during a press conference on Thursday.

“He actually walked out of the emergency room with a 90-day prescription for opioids and five refills,” said Bell. “Before he was done with that prescription, he was addicted.”

Bell said his family didn’t know how to react to his son’s opioid dependence. After seven years of addiction, he got treatment and is in recovery. Bell now works on legislation to help combat the state’s opioid epidemic.

Del. Bell speaking at a press conference on Thursday

His bill, House Bill 131, would require health insurers, which cover prescription drugs, to provide coverage for alternative pain management drugs that are prescribed to an individual with an opioid dependence disorder.

“The last thing we want to do is give them an opioid, and possibly put them into relapse,” said Bell. “This bill will ensure that there is an option available that is a non-opioid painkiller.”

This isn’t Virginia’s first drug crisis, but this one has taken a different tone among public officials.

During the 1980s and early 1990s in Charlottesville, Virginia the crack cocaine business was booming.

According to The Daily Progress, the local police department dealt with the situation by “kicking down doors and doing ‘jump outs,’” or quickly jumping out of unmarked vehicles to bust drug dealers. As a whole, the country addressed an epidemic based in poor, predominantly black communities with zero tolerance.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University in Boston, said that in previous epidemics there was a war on drugs and crackdown on crime. But now faced with an addiction epidemic that is disproportionately white, America has taken a “softer” approach.

“What we’re hearing from policymakers, even conservative Republican politicians when they talk about the opioid crisis, many begin by saying, we can’t arrest our way out of this,” Kolodny told National Public Radio in November. “We have to see that people who are addicted can access effective treatment. We didn’t hear that during the crack cocaine epidemic. It’s good that we’re hearing it now. It’s too bad we didn’t hear it then.”

Opioid Overdose Deaths by Race/Ethnicity, 1999-2016. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (kff.org)

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told The New York Times that since the demographics affected are more white and middle class, the parents are more empowered to take action.

“They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate,” said Botticelli. “They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

In 2016, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared the Virginia opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency. Last year, he signed multiple bills relating to the opioid epidemic. This year, Gov. Ralph Northam is likely to do the same.

There are over 20 bills by both the Virginia Senate and House relating to opioids in this year’s legislative session. One of the many bills is Del. Jeff Bourne’s, D-Richmond, House Bill 332, which adds probation and parole officers to the list of individuals who may possess and administer naloxone, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdose.

Other bills range in topics including the location of treatment centers, adjustments to the Prescription Monitoring Program and reporting overdoses.

“These are our sons, our daughters, our mothers and fathers. I’ve met 78-year-old grandmothers who were new to recovery and I’ve met parents of 12-year-olds who were addicted to opioids,” said Bell. “This is something that doesn’t choose color, it doesn’t choose race and it doesn’t choose locality – it’s everyone.”