A consensus emerged at the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s 78th Public Square: More needs to be done to save lives from the opioid epidemic.

More than 200 people were in attendance at Wednesday evening’s forum — many of whom are enrolled in addiction recovery programs, according to the shirts they wore. Advocates said they need to be included in discussions about the laws, policies and funding that are meant to help them and keep the public safe.

While local law enforcement officials in recent years have looked to implement addiction recovery programs in local jails to treat inmates suffering from addiction, the still-high number of overdose deaths has led some officials to believe there’s a need for better public and private services.

“If it’s a mental health issue, I don’t want to put you in jail,” said Hanover County Sheriff David Hines, one of the Public Square’s four panelists. “I understand the criminal offense of [drug] possession — I’m a big advocate for arrests on that. But what I’m saying is I want alternative programs outside of our jail.”

The forum, held at The Times-Dispatch’s downtown offices, also featured Chesterfield County Fire and EMS Chief Edward “Loy” Senter Jr.; Dr. Danny Avula, director of Henrico County’s and Richmond’s health districts; and Ivy Sager, director of the Hanover County Community Services Board.

Several recovery advocates noted that they sometimes feel neglected in policy discussions and decisions about the use of public resources for addiction recovery services and programs.

“I get to help people just like me. I get the good, bad and ugly of addiction. I get to see these families sit on my couch across from me screaming, crying and begging us to save their child’s life,” said Honesty Liller, CEO of the McShin Foundation, an addiction recovery organization that provides sober-living housing and a connection to recovery services.

“We are literally on the front lines of this epidemic. You all have to listen to us,” she said.

Several attendees said there’s a need to direct public funding to local community services boards and private organizations so that people who have overdosed or who seek help — who often are told to come back later after an initial assessment — can be helped immediately.

Advocates and officials say that’s important, as drug addicts are prone to use drugs again if they can’t be helped immediately under supervision or medical treatment.

The annual number of drug overdose deaths in Richmond and the counties of Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield has gradually increased over the past decade. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Health reported 280 deaths in those localities, the most in the past decade and nearly four times more than in 2010.

State officials counted 256 overdose deaths in those localities last year. Statewide, through the first three months of 2019, Virginia was on pace to record its highest opioid overdose death toll since it began keeping track in 2007.

“It is a huge challenge,” said Senter, the Chesterfield Fire and EMS chief. “We’re going to be working on this for years to come, I believe. One of the things that would be encouraging to me is seeing a continual downward trend in the number of overdoses and deaths.”

In closing comments, Avula advised that advocates can lobby local and state lawmakers to see more resources directed to their organizations and create laws that can make it easier for recovering addicts to live successful, healthy lives.

“If we can harness that and get organized and talk to the folks who can unlock funding for same-day services or make meaningful progress in criminal justice reform, that’s where the work has to be done,” the health director for Richmond and Henrico said.

“I want to be part of that with you all, but it really takes a concerted, organized effort from the people in this room to talk to the folks who can make decisions and pull the right levers.”

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