Since 2012, authorities track 450 percent rise in heroin-related deaths in Loudoun

With newly released statistics revealing a dramatic rise in the number of heroin overdoses and deaths in Loudoun in recent years, local authorities are increasingly focused on combating the widespread and deadly trend.

According to data released this month, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office documented 31 suspected heroin overdoses last year, representing a 72 percent increase in heroin overdose cases compared with 2013, and a 288 percent increase compared with 2012.

Of the 2014 overdose cases, 11 were fatalities, which is an 83 percent rise in heroin-related deaths compared with 2013 and a 450 percent increase compared with 2012, the sheriff’s office said. About 20 percent of all drug overdose cases documented by the sheriff’s office are attributed to heroin, authorities said.

The steep rise is driven in part by the corresponding increase in prescription drug abuse; other pharmaceuticals can often serve as a gateway to heroin use, Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the pharmaceutical drugs, oxycodone, those opiate-based drugs,” Chapman said. “Folks get a hold of those and then get addicted. . . . Then, when they can no longer get them, they want to experience a similar sensation, so they end up going out to the streets, and they’re buying heroin instead.”

The problem is compounded by the fact that much of the heroin that is circulated locally is laced with dangerous synthetic opiates such as fentanyl, increasing the likelihood of an overdose, he said.

The synthetic compounds “provide a very unpredictable potency,” he said.

Heroin abuse is especially prevalent among white men, with the average age range hovering in the mid-20s, Chapman said. Authorities are still examining why this demographic appears particularly susceptible to the drug.

“The comeback of heroin is still kind of a new phenomenon,” Chapman said.

Local and state authorities have made the prevalence of heroin and prescription drug abuse a top priority. Last year, in response to soaring rates of heroin use and overdose across the commonwealth, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) established a statewide task force on prescription drug and heroin abuse to monitor and combat the pattern.