By Aila Boyd
aboyd@ourvalley.org

A discussion on opioids was held at Lord Botetourt High School last Tuesday night. Ryan Hall, Dr. John Burton, and Investigator Lucas Whitman spoke at the event.

The discussion was similar to one that was held for students during the actual school day.
“The fact that you all are here tonight shows that you care about your community,” Andy Dewease, principal of Lord Botetourt High School, said. “The discussion topic tonight is not only affecting our nation and our states and the valley, but it’s also right here in Botetourt County.”

Noah Moore, a student at the school and one of the organizers of the event, explained that the opioid crisis kills almost 130 people a day— more than the number of people who die daily as the result of car accidents and guns. “Fortunately, many of these deaths are preventable through education, changing doctor practices, and better mental health,” he said.

Before Hall took the stage, a video was played that chronicled his story from being a successful student athlete to winding up behind bars for a felony drug conviction.

Hall, who had been at the top of his class and a star athlete, explains in the video that his story took a turn for the worst when he suffered a severe injury during a high school football game.

The injury resulted in a tibial plateau fracture, a dislocated kneecap, a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, and meniscus, all of which had to be remedied by surgery. Following the surgery, he was prescribed opioids to alleviate the severe pain he was experiencing.

He eventually turned to heroin in order to feed his addiction after his supply of opioids was cut off, even selling it so that he could make money to buy it for himself. He was addicted to heroin for two and a half years.

At the height of his addiction, Hall was using 10 bags of Fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, a day.

As a result of his addiction, Hall became a felon and ended up having to serve an 18-month jail sentence. After being released from jail, he returned to “popping pills.” He eventually overdosed.

What fed my addiction was the guilt and shame over who I was… not being able to got to college and play sports like I wanted to,” he said.

Speaking from his own experience, Hall said, “We have to look deeper at what the addict has been through.” He went on to explain that he believes there can be a connection between childhood traumas and addiction.

As a child, he experienced a traumatic event when his mother left him and his sister. Eventually, a visitation agreement was worked out between his father and mother. He explained that his mother eventually married his stepfather, who was the complete opposite of his straight-laced sheriff father and ultimately abusive.

We’ve got to come together and eliminate this stigma,” he said. “We’ve got to get more in tune with these kids and what they’re thinking.” He added that he doesn’t look like the average heroin addict.

He will be two years sober of drugs and alcohol in August.

If you ask a kindergartner what they want to be when they grow up, not one will say they want to be a heroin addict,” he said. “My goal is to reach the kids.”

As he ended his remarks, Hall noted that Lord Botetourt students are some of the most well-behaved students he has ever addressed.

Investigator Lucas Whitman with the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office spoke next. He started by noting that he has been in law enforcement for four years and investigates narcotics and VICE-related crimes.

My job is to go out and find the people who are putting this poison on the streets and in the hands of our youth,” he said.

In the past 12 months 266 people have been arrested for either possession or distribution of narcotics by the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office.

There were 42,249 opioid-related deaths in the United States in 2016, he said. In Virginia, there were 1,130 opioid-related deaths in 2016 and in 2017 there were 1,181 opioid-related deaths.

I’ve had to go and tell the mother of a 26-year-old that her little girl wasn’t coming home,” he said, adding that the young woman had three children all under the age of 10.

He explained that the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office has recently seen an increase in heroin throughout the county, adding that all of the heroin the office has come into contact with has tested positive for having Fentanyl in it. “For those of you who don’t know what Fentanyl is, it’s a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin,” he said.

He ended his remarks by urging those in attendance to reach out to him if they or someone they know is struggling with addiction. He added that it takes a “big person” to ask for help.

Our little community here that I’m so happy to be a part of is struggling with it, but we’re doing everything that we can,” he said.

Burton, who is a resident of Botetourt County, showed photos of local individuals from when they were in high school. “Their stories are unique, but also unified in a lot of ways,” he said. The unifying factor of their life stories is that they all developed an addiction.

Most people that end up with an opioid addiction start with prescription pills,” he explained.

He used a flow chart to illustrate the modern opiate/heroin gateway. It starts with recreational/prescription opiate use, then progresses to an opiate pill addiction, followed by the loss of the opiate pill supply source, which ultimately leads to the use of heroin.

Citing statistics, he explained that 231,000 men and 120,000 women died from opioid-related causes in the United States between 1996 and 2016; 52,404 Americans died by opioid and heroin overdose in 2015 alone. Additionally, he noted that it is estimated that two to four million individuals are currently addicted to opioids.

He then focused in on the specific audience that he was addressing by rattling off some statistics from a high school youth drug and alcohol use survey. The results of the survey, which focused on seniors, are: 55 percent of respondents reported marijuana use, 26 percent of respondents reported oxycontin/oxycodone use, and 4.2 percent of respondents reported heroin use.

In order to put the opioid crisis in context, Burton noted that although the United States only represents 5 percent of the world’s population, it consumes 80 percent of the global supply of oxycodone and 90 percent of the global supply of hydrocodone. “Other developed cultures in the world don’t have this problem,” he said.

Burton lastly touched on the length of time that it takes for someone to become addicted. He explained that the potency of the initial dose, the frequency of use, and any history of depression or anxiety all play a key role in developing addictive behaviors. He added, “When you are taking a pill or shooting up, you have no idea what is in it. You can die from just one trip.”

Echoing what Hall previously said about not looking like the stereotypical heroin addict, Burton said, “It can be the rich, the poor, the educated, the rural, the urban— this breaks all the rules of the people who get caught up.” He cautioned against assuming that people struggling with opioid addiction are similar to the heroin addicts of the 1970s.

Following remarks by Hall, Burton, and Whitman, a panel discussion was held in which members of the audience were able to pose questions they had about the opioid epidemic to the panelists. Lethia Hammond, of the Botetourt Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, and Kevin Hall, sheriff of Alleghany County, also participated in the panel.

The event was sponsored by the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office, Carilion Clinic, the Virginia Department of Health, Botetourt County Public Schools, and the Botetourt Prevention Coalition.

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