Headlines around the commonwealth last week featured a common good news, bad news story: Traffic fatalities were down in Virginia last year, but heroin deaths were up.
Here’s a sample:
“Drug deaths outnumber Virginia highway fatalities in 2014.”
“Heroin deaths exceed traffic fatalities in Virginia.”
“Despite official efforts, heroin now more lethal than driving in Virginia.”
I hesitate to point this out, but heroin has always been more lethal than driving. You can tool around in a car from the time you’re 16 until you’re 80 and expect to escape unscathed.
Dabble in heroin, and your life expectancy is almost certainly diminished.
Seems to me, a bigger question is how are highway deaths and fatal drug overdoses related? The answer: They’re not.
Yet story after story noted that in 2014, highway deaths dropped from 741 to 700 while deaths from drug overdoses, including prescription opiates, rose sharply, from 661 to 728.
Apples and oranges, folks. And any way you peel them, there’s nothing here but bad news.
First, let’s call last year’s dip in traffic deaths gratifying. The Department of Motor Vehicles confirmed that highway fatalities are actually up so far this year. As of last Tuesday, 559 people had died on Virginia roads compared with 535 who had lost their lives by Oct. 13 last year.
Deaths from drug overdoses, on the other hand, are soaring and show no sign of retreat. Two weeks ago, the Attorney General’s Office said that “in the last five years, fatal overdoses have increased by 57 percent and nearly 3,000 Virginians lost their lives.”
I called Thomas Tsao, a Virginia Beach psychiatrist, author and expert on adolescent behavior, looking for an explanation. I wondered whether the stubbornly stagnant economy might be causing people to numb themselves with opiates.
Doubtful, he said, noting that he knew families who had lost teens to drug overdoses.
“What the kids are telling me is that heroin is cheap,” Tsao said. “As cheap as marijuana. Cheaper than cocaine.
“It’s all marketing,” he added. “The kids are offered free samples by drug dealers. Once they’re hooked, there’s a ready market for the product. It’s economics 101.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark Herring confirmed Tsao’s theory.
“Based on everything we know from law enforcement and prosecutors,” Emily Bolton said, “the price of heroin has plummeted.”
In many cases, she said, those addicted to prescription drugs switch to heroin, which is less expensive and easier to get.
Look, I’ve disagreed with Herring’s positions on many — if not most — issues, but the attorney general is right to fight what appears to be a heroin epidemic in many parts of Virginia.
We can debate the eventual legalization of drugs. Right now, we need to stop the carnage from illegal trafficking. Herring claims his office has been aggressively pursuing drug traffickers. In fact, 28 prosecutions have led to the confiscation of 95 kilos of heroin, with a street value of $19 million.
But if the price is still low, there must be a lot more out there.
In the upcoming General Assembly session, Herring will support legislation to hold drug dealers responsible when the drugs they sell lead to death.
While I don’t support dram-shop laws for bartenders — mixologists aren’t responsible for the actions of drunks — laws that punish drug dealers for the misery they inflict are desperately needed.
Wait. Here’s one way traffic deaths and drug overdoses ought to be linked.
Kill someone with your car and — depending on the circumstances — you may face manslaughter charges. Kill someone by selling him or her heroin, and you should face a similar fate.
Or worse. S
Kerry Dougherty is a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot.