Figures show drug overdose deaths don't discriminate, hurting all areas in Virginia

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SALEM (WSLS 10) - A new report released this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows drug overdoses are killing people in all segments of the population.

Unlike the crack cocaine epidemic seen in big cities during the early 90s, officials say drugs like heroin are hitting suburban areas more.

Officials say the drug problem is an issue that does not discriminate

"It's not a white, black issue or an urban, suburban issue it is everywhere and opioids are really hitting our parts of Western Virginia hard," said Delegate Greg Habeeb.

New figures from the foundation paint a picture of deaths related to drug overdoses.

Data from 2013-2015 shows the number of drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people. Roanoke City and Salem saw similar rates (20) while Pulaski (24) was among the highest in Southwest Virginia.

Drug overdoses are an issue state lawmakers took steps to address during this past legislative session.

"We've passed some initiatives and the Attorney General Mark Herring has done a lot with regards to the opioid issue. He's tackling that issue front and center. A lot of it has to do with public education as well," says Senator John Edwards.

"We got some more funding and policies in place to help law enforcement, but this is not one of those issues that we fix by legislation," says Habeeb. "Legislation has a role to play. We as a community need to take this issue head on."

Raising public awareness is a goal for Salem Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Bowers. He chairs a task force focused on ways to address the ongoing drug problems. Bowers said cultural changes are needed.

"That's got to start with the medical community and the medical community has got to not be giving out all these hydrocodone and opioid addictive medication. But the people have to accept that 'I don't really need that pain medication,'" said Bowers.

In addition to education and legislation, Bowers said removing the stigma of heroin and opioid abuse will also be key to preventing future overdose deaths.

Starting in April, officials will once again go to schools and churches to raise awareness about drug abuse and ways to fix the problem.