RICHMOND, Va. -- The number of drug overdose deaths has skyrocketed in Virginia, claiming more than 3,000 lives in just the last five years, according to Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner. Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond all rank among the top five Virginia locations for overdose deaths from heroin and prescription drugs, according to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.
Heroin has become the new drug of choice, especially for prescription drug abusers seeking a bigger high, Virginia narcotic agents said. Heroin is cheap, extremely potent and being sold in high quantities across the Commonwealth, from inner cities to affluent neighborhoods."
One local student called it terrifying, the ease with which students had access to drugs.
Another local high school student said she was more aware of prescription drug abuse among teenagers.
"What I mostly see are the prescription drugs like Xanax and Adderall," she said.
Both students agreed parents and school leaders seemed unaware of the severity of the drug problem among teenagers.
VCU Medical Center oral surgeon Omar Abubaker is keenly aware of the problem. His son lost his battle with addiction in the fall. Adam Abubaker, 21, died of a heroin overdose in September 2014. Adam had been celebrating one year of sobriety the week he overdosed.
"I said, ‘You and me, we’re going to have to go to a special place [to celebrate],’” Abubaker recalled telling his son. "He said ‘Dad… one day at a time.'"
The Abubakers had sought help for Adam's addiction at the McShin Foundation, a drug treatment center in Richmond’s Northside. John Shinholser, Founder and President of the McShin Foundation, said Adam’s story was all too familiar.
"You see these 18-year-olds, these 17-year-olds, these 16-year-olds and it’s sad to think six percent of them are going to die," Shinholser said about recovering drug addicts he encounters.
In an effort to raise awareness about drug abuse among families who may be uncomfortable talking about the problem, a small group of parents started Families for Recovery. The support group for family members of addicts meets Wednesday at the McShin Foundation. There, they share stories and search for ways to spread awareness.
"We're trying to put a face to this disease and say 'we are the faces of addiction,'" group mom Connie Petock said.
In April, the group addressed Henrico students, parents and school leaders at an after-school event at Freeman High School. The event drew a large crowd. Families for Recovery hopes to reach every school district by the fall.
"The hardest thing in a person's life ever, is to admit I've got a problem and ask for help," Shinholser said.
Shinsolser said he believed awareness would encourage more addicts to reach out for help, and more families to come forward. However, he said he believed society must first be willing to let go of the stigma of addiction.
Omar Abubaker said it was difficult for him to accept addiction as a disease, until his son spoke candidly about his struggles. The grieving father said he would never forget the day his son told him that the person who'd first given him heroin, had died.
"I said 'good.' He said 'Dad, he's an addict, he's sick,'" an ashamed Abubaker said. "I was caught between my love for my child and I lost my compassion for other people."
The Abubakers said while they lost Adam, they hoped they could spare someone else from burying a loved one. Last month, the Abubakers donated $15,000 to McShin to help pay for someone else to receive treatment.
"I just want to tell people the pain they you go through once the fight is in your house," Abubaker said. "Once you're fighting for your child to stay sober or stay in recovery - and you fail - that means your losses are immeasurable."
The issues is not isolated to Virginia. Across the country, drug overdoses now kill more Americans than car accidents.
This past General Assembly session, lawmakers passed three bills aimed at reducing heroin deaths, including "safe reporting" legislation that allowed overdoses to be reported without the fear of prosecution.
A bill that would have made it possible for heroin dealers to face homicide charges after a fatal overdose failed to pass the Virginia General Assembly in 2015. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said the bill has a better chance of passing the General Assembly in 2016.