Fentanyl overdose fatalities hit new record, community pleas for change
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- In each year since 2013, more Virginians have died from a drug overdose than any other cause of unnatural death.
That's how Charlottesville parents Kevin and Pamela Green lost their son, Kalen.
The trouble started when Kalen got into a bad car accident a few years ago. A hospital prescribed him Percocet, which is an opioid, for pain.
"They gave him so many that he started enjoying it. Then he started using it recreationally," Kevin said.
In January of last year, a Percocet pill laced with fentanyl ended Kalen's life.
According to the latest report on fatal drug overdoses from Virginia's Office of the Medical Examiner, Kalen is one of nearly 2,600 Virginians who died from a drug overdose last year. More than 75 percent of those cases involved fentanyl, which is a substance 50 times stronger than heroin.
But the Greens say that the person who sold their son the fentanyl-laced pill is walking free.
"And to know what we know, and to not be able to have anything done, it's just overwhelming," Kevin said.
Kevin specifically cites House Bill 1356 from the General Assembly's 2022 legislative session, which was passed by the House and punted to next year's session by the Senate judiciary committee.
The bill states that "any person who sells, gives, or distributes a substance he knows or should know contains two milligrams or more of any mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl" would be guilty of attempted murder in the second degree.
"There's been a national trend towards decriminalization of certain crimes," said Captain Tony Newberry with the Charlottesville Police Department.
Newberry said weeding out drug dealers is getting harder. CPD is no longer part of a state drug task force used to investigate drug crimes because of limited resources.
"Without a dedicated unit specifically targeting something like that, it is extremely difficult to ever remove the dealer," he said.
Still, Newberry said arrests, prosecution and legislation can only go so far, adding that there must be a holistic approach from different resources across the community.
"Even if we remove the substance, if we can remove dealers, there are people who are addicted now that need help," he said.
Activist Tanesha Hudson wants to see accessible resources on both the local and federal levels that can address addiction before addiction ends a life.
"It's an issue that people don't like to talk about until it touches their front doorsteps," Hudson said. "This city doesn't offer much when it comes to giving people the help that they need. We don't have any type of programs around here that really help people battle the addiction."
Hudson said she'd love to lead an initiative, much like what other U.S. cities are doing, that would allow medical officials from fire departments to administer Narcan on the spot when responding to overdose calls.
Dr. Hezedean Smith, the chief of the Charlottesville Fire Department, initiated a similar measure in Orlando when he served as chief there.
Narcan is a substance meant to combat the effects of an overdose, and community members can get it for free to save a life.
At a meeting on Feb. 7 of this year, Smith talked about the issue of opioid addiction in the city and how officials are trying to combat it.
"There's a lot to be done outside of the '911 system' that the fire department is not capable of addressing," Smith said, adding that the department has to rely on its partners to work together.
In a presentation of Charlottesville EMS opioid overdose response demographics, CFD found about 71.7 percent of the opioid overdoses it responded to in 2021 were men, more than half were white, and the most affected age was between 20 and 29 years old.
Smith said to target this, CFD intends to incorporate a "leave-behind Narcan" program in which they can leave Narcan for community members after responding to an overdose call.
The Blue Ridge Health District has free drive-thru events throughout the year.
In the meantime, Kalen's parents hope their son's story makes people realize that the issue of opioid addiction is very real, and it's right in their neighborhood.
"There's nothing we can do at the moment, but like I said, let's save the next family from going through this," Kevin said.