The following information is the transcript of a phone interview conducted in December 2016 with Michael Zohab.
I have been with the police department for over 28 years. It will be 29 years this February. Currently, I am the Commander in Charge of the Special Investigations Division with the Richmond Police Department, which encompasses narcotics, computer crimes, computer sexual predators and the technical unit.
The story is it is an epidemic. We are, as of today, at 311 individuals who have overdosed and survived from opiates.
The story is it is an epidemic. We are, as of today, at 311 individuals who have overdosed and survived from opiates. And we are at 41 deaths. That is just the city of Richmond. While in the city of Richmond has 210,000 people, we have people from the surrounding areas coming to Richmond to purchase illicit drugs.
I saw the trends. I started trying to get awareness on the prescription drug and heroin problems six years ago. When I got transferred, I started looking at the way the Richmond Police Department was doing things.
All law enforcement agencies are struggling with assets right now. We all have employee shortages. I knew that there was no way we were going to get more people assigned. We had to do things differently, and completely differently.
One of the issues statewide, and I think it’s across the country, is there is no mandated reporting on non-lethal overdoses. The FBI doesn’t consider it a crime, so law enforcement agencies do not have to document the existence of these instances. For example, there’s counties in the state of Virginia that have shown zero non-lethal overdoses.
I mandated and put it into a directive in our rules and regulations that a report had to be taken for non-lethal overdoses because we weren’t consistently taking the reports either. An individual would overdose and survive, and they would go in an ambulance and be on their way. The police would clear up without a report. I did that three years ago. We’ve had a huge increase, obviously. Because we weren’t taking reports, the numbers were skewed the first year.
Basically, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, so to speak. If you’re not reporting a problem then you’ve got no record that problem exists. We saw these huge increases, and that’s when I had the statistical data to really affect some change. We started mandating that there’s follow up on non-lethal overdoses – trying to get a handle on where it was purchased. Taking and collecting evidence, not necessarily for incarceration, but for laboratory tracking to see what other substances were causing these people to overdose. And what we found was it wasn’t necessarily extremely pure heroin. It was usually a mixture of other drugs. Benzos were typically responsible, 18 months or two years ago, for a lot of the overdoses. Drugs dealers were adding the benzos to the heroin on the street, which were causing individuals to go into respiratory arrest and not recover at all.
Drug dealers on the street earn their street cred, their advertising is the strongest drug possible for the least amount of money. And somebody who is an addict, they want to get as close to an overdose as possible because they’re getting the most bang for their buck. It’s the most substance, the most effect, for the least amount of money. They can’t advertise like typical retailers. Everything is word of mouth. So if XYZ drug dealer has overdosed a couple of people, and people see how great his stuff is, he’s gonna get more customers. His stuff will be in more demand and feasibly, he might be able to sell his stuff for more money than the other guys.
…fentanyl is so potent, it only take 2.5 milligrams to cause an adult to overdose.
Then we started seeing fentanyl becoming more and more prevalent in the commonwealth. And because fentanyl is so potent, it only take 2.5 milligrams to cause an adult to overdose. Which is the same as eight or nine grams of salt. These individuals do not have the ability to properly dilute or cut their product. So if you and I buy a bag of heroin from the same guy, and he had added fentanyl to it, I might be fine, and you might be dead from the same batch.
In addition, we saw another need – the drug take back. We were only doing drug take backs twice a year with the DEA, every six months. Drug take backs is where you have the ability to bring in your pharmaceutical products that you no longer need, with no questions asked, to be destroyed.
Pharmacies can take the drugs back, but because of the regulations with the DEA, they don’t want to because it’s not cost efficient. They have to take the drugs from you when you turn them in, add them to their inventory and then dispose of it.
We got a grant through CVS, and we have a drug take back box in all of our precincts and headquarters now. Seven days a week, you can bring any drug you want – we don’t care if it’s an illicit drug or a prescription drug – give it to the officer, no names asked. We package it, we put in a box, and my guys go through once a month and empty the boxes and destroy it all. So we’ve got 365 days a year drug take back now in the city of Richmond.
We don’t care if mommy finds a bag of weed, and she wants to take it and give it to us to dispose of. We’re going to take it, no questions asked. No documentation of who we’re taking it from. But we’re giving her the means to legally dispose of it.
Now in looking at what we were doing, I noticed that we weren’t fixing the problem. Arresting individuals who overdosed is no good. It’s fiscally irresponsible. And it’s not helping the individual who needs help. It’s only compounding their problems by adding real charges.
I looked at the Angel Project in Gloucester, Massachusetts. This was in the summer of 2015. I contacted them and started trying to develop a means for doing that in Richmond. But what I found was, because we’re not a Medicaid expansion state with universal health care, it wasn’t going to work. They have universal health care. Virginia does not.
The only way this was going to work is if we had a private foundation to solicit assets. I solicited private funds to help people get into recovery. That began the private foundation, Virginia Recovery Foundation. We’re starting with individuals who overdose. The officer will ask them, “Do you want help?” If they say they want help, volunteers go to the hospital and facilitate placement into a recovery facility.
I’ve got, right now, six facilities that have given me scholarships that we’re going to be partnering with. So the individual can be completely indigent, and we’ll be able to get them into recovery. Talking to the medical facility, individuals that need help fall into three categories. You can either get Medicaid, which is about 25%; you have private insurance, which is 25%; or you are completely uninsured, which is the other 50%.
The vision, once the project is up and running, is that any individual can go up to any police officer or go into any fire station, and say “I need help,” and a volunteer will help place them.
When I wrote the request to the IRS for non-profit status, the footprint I put was pretty broad for the Virginia Recovery Foundation. There are two components of it that are educational components and a legislative components.
The education is an awareness campaign dealing with schools, kids and their parents. One of the members of our Board of Directors is Tom Banner with VCU Wellness Center. He started Rams and Recovery. He does awareness and educational programs with VCU for substance abuse and mental illness. The substance abuse is not just opiates. He covers the whole gambit of alcohol, tobacco, pills, marijuana, everything.
One of the projects that we’re doing, and I’ve already reached out to a school and they’ve agreed to be a pilot school, is to start paralleling the awareness programs they’re doing at VCU for the high schools, so that the kids are in a constant, or are constantly being made aware, sometimes unknowingly, being educated about these issues. And that’s been approved. The Foundation is going to be supporting that project there.
We also looked into changing the way the kids are educated at the high school level. And changing the curriculum and bringing in subject matter experts on the bio-chemical reaction in the brain to different substances. We’re bringing in individuals that are in peer recovery to talk to these kids about the been there done that kind of thing. We’re not asking anything from these schools, we’re not giving them any curriculum. We’re going to bring in instructors, all we want is time. That has been proposed. I’m waiting for approval.
And the next leg of that community kit is bringing in seminars for the parents because so often, what I have seen, the parents are in denial. All the evidence and all the warning signs are there. They just choose not to see it until it’s too late.
Before the Foundation started, another board member and I got Chris Herring to come to Henrico. He was an NBA basketball player who was addicted to heroin. He does motivational speaking around the country on substance abuse, using his story. We got him to one of the local high schools. He did a talk for the parents the night before and then the kids the next day.
It’s important that we talk about these things not in a crisis mode. We all talk about it at a funeral. Or we talk about it when somebody overdoses. We need to have these conversations before that.
Something I’ve been advocating for, and I don’t know how my foundation is going to assist fiscally, but we are pushing for this. It is to have peer substance abuse counselors in the schools. Because the kids, right now, only have a couple of choices. They can talk to the teacher, the administrator, or the cop working there.
The high school I’m working with, they’ve had a part-time counselor’s position unfilled for two years now. And there’s another high school next to it that has the same issue. What we’ve proposed and requested is that they fill that part-time position into a job share. That they have a peer counselor work between the two schools so that kids have someone to go to.