Virginia school and law enforcement officials have been keeping a wary eye on teenagers amid a heroin and opioid scourge that has killed more people than automobile crashes for two consecutive years.
But as deaths from the drugs continue to rise — at least 1,066 statewide during a 15-month period ending in March — adolescents largely have survived an epidemic marked by its expansive reach.
Even when including overdoses on popular benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium alongside opioids, people younger than 20 made up about 2 percent of overdose deaths from the drugs from 2007 to 2014, according to data from the state medical examiner’s office.
Although those numbers may seem encouraging, the ones that follow are not: Adults ages 25 to 44 accounted for more than half of all deaths during that time frame — in large part casualties of the intersection between genetic predisposition to substance abuse and the widespread availability of prescription painkillers, treatment experts say.
About 7,400 people died of drug overdoses in Virginia from 2007 to 2015, of which nearly three-fourths took prescription painkillers, heroin or other opioids, state epidemiological data show.
One of them was Dawson Pettit, 26, of Henrico County, whose mother, Laurie, now lives a life of “what-ifs.”
What if she had taken his high school drinking and pot smoking more seriously?
What if he hadn’t suffered the physical and emotional scars of a beating and home break-in during his last year at James Madison University?
What if, in the depression that followed, he hadn’t had access to a cancer patient’s prescriptions?
What might his children have looked like?
One day, Dawson was living at home, attending recovery meetings and planning his next steps. The next — March 1, 2014 — he overdosed on heroin and died at the Kroger supermarket on Lombardy Street in Richmond.
He was the winner of a Drug Abuse Resistance Education award in fifth grade.
He majored in sports management and interned with NASCAR. He loved his family.
He also overdosed at work, nodded out in a Fan District parking lot after getting high, abandoned a car in the Brandermill subdivision of Chesterfield County and forged prescriptions. He never served time.
“I used to pray for him to go to jail, because at least there he would be safe,” Laurie Pettit said.
“Addiction ends three ways: recovery, death or institutions,” Dr. Marty Buxton tells his patients at the Family Counseling Center of Richmond for recovering addicts and at Tucker Pavilion, the behavioral health center at Chippenham Hospital.
The message doesn’t always stick the first, third or even 10th time, but he persists until something clicks.
“Part of the problem is surviving until that happens,” Buxton said.
Although the number of teenagers dying of drug-related overdoses does not appear to be on the rise, those genetically predisposed to substance abuse could meet a tragic end if parents aren’t vigilant, Buxton said.
The adolescents and young adults Buxton treats present unique challenges in part because the portion of their brains that governs impulse control is not fully developed.
What’s worse, he said, is that early, frequent exposure to such substances as marijuana could change the pleasure centers of the brain and exacerbate an underlying predisposition to addiction.
Laurie Pettit said it was challenging to know whether her son’s behaviors had eclipsed high school experimentation and graduated to something more menacing.
“It didn’t seem out of the normal, it didn’t seem out of control, and I did enough snooping to keep tabs on what he was up to,” she said.
“I didn’t understand the disease. A year before he died, I looked right at him and said, ‘Just stop,’ but he couldn’t.”
Chuck Adcock, director of the Family Counseling Center for Recovery, which treats addicts at its offices in Richmond, Chester and Fredericksburg, said that if a teenager’s behavior does not evade detection, it likely has progressed to the point they should be screened.
“If they are truly just experimenting — having a beer on the weekend — you probably aren’t going to know,” Adcock said. “But if they are getting caught, it’s probably beyond experimentation.”
Because addiction is a progressive disease, a certain percentage of teenagers who drink and smoke will go on to look for the next best high. And the closest supply is their family medicine cabinet, Adcock cautioned.
“It’s not a big step for a kid to go from drinking beer and smoking pot to trying Vicodin,” he said.
“It is a big step to go from pot to heroin. By taking those prescription drugs out of the middle, we should see a drop in heroin usage.”
Meanwhile, the death toll mounts. People ages 25 to 34 who overdosed on prescription painkillers died at more than six times the rate of 15- to 19-year-olds from 2007 to 2014.
Once young people are able to drive, get a job and move out, their access to drugs increases, Adcock said. “At 22,” he said, “you have choices you don’t have at 16.”
Buxton said he has seen some patients in their late teens who use drugs intravenously, but not many.
“We do see some 16- and 17-year-olds addicted to heroin, but thank God, we don’t see very many,” he said. Most start by snorting or swallowing the drug.
The average age of those who have overdosed on heroin or other opiates in Chesterfield so far in 2016 is 32, according to county police.
In Hanover County, the average age among overdose victims on drugs of any kind since Jan. 1, 2015, is 36, according to sheriff’s office data. Of the 126 victims, 17 were younger than 20.
Two teenagers have overdosed on opioids this year in Chesterfield. One recovered. The other, who was visiting from out of state, died as a result of fentanyl toxicity, according to Chesterfield police spokeswoman Liz Caroon.
Richmond and Henrico County police did not fulfill data requests by Sunday afternoon. But of the 398 suspected overdoses to which the Richmond Ambulance Authority responded last year, 89, or about 22 percent, were for people 20 and younger, according to authority data.
A smaller percentage of Chesterfield teenagers reported abusing drugs overall in the past year than in previous years, according to a survey of 3,500 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders released this summer by Substance Abuse Free Environment Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to substance abuse prevention.
“Our usage is below the national average,” said Regina Whitsett, the Chesterfield group’s executive director. “But we have heard stories of young people skipping over prescription pills and going straight to heroin, which is scary.”
For Laurie Pettit, the fear with which she lived for so long has been supplanted by a deep, aching grief.
“I understand now — now that it’s too late,” she said. “They take these things because they feel uncomfortable in their own skin; they are in pain. They just want to feel better.”
Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2016 10:30 pm