Karen Hahn was 17 with dreams of college when she took her first painkiller in Harrisonburg.
Over a third of a century later, the 52-year-old Shenandoah town native is still battling the urge to take opioids. She has been homeless for over a year, and the drug has played a large hand in derailing her life, Hahn said.
“They take away the pain, but they destroy people’s families,” she said Sunday sitting outside Our Community Place in Harrisonburg.
Hahn remembers smelling meth being made on Wolfe Street in the city the day she took her first opioid. One pill became two, two became three and it snowballed. At one point, she was spending between $75 and $200 a week on prescription drugs.
The drug also proved a gateway into harder drugs, such as crack cocaine, which she has since put behind her, she said.
Now, Hahn’s chronic pain, so bad it requires surgery for a metal rod in her back, keeps pushing her back toward opioids. Hahn is hardly the only person battling opioid addiction in the Valley.
In Harrisonburg and Rockingham County alone, there have been 37 deaths due to opioids between 2015 and Friday afternoon, according to data provided by law enforcement officers with Shenandoah Valley drug task forces.
It’s even worse in the northern part of the Valley, where opioids have caused 26 deaths and over 200 injuries combined this year alone between the counties of Shenandoah, Frederick, Warren, Page and Clarke and the city of Winchester, according to the data.
“It affects all levels of society,” said Jonathan Rothwell, supervisory special agent assigned to the RUSH Drug Task Force as a coordinator of the Virginia State Police in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. “It’s not limited to certain socioeconomic groups.”
“These drugs are so powerful, even when they are prescribed in a legitimate manner, and I’ve talked to people who that’s how it started — they were in a car accident and they’ve been prescribed [an opioid] and it’s one thing leads to another and next thing, they can’t get a prescription refill so they’re looking for heroin or fentanyl and it’s just a chain reaction,” he said.
Since 2015, there have been at least 153 injuries caused by opioids in Harrisonburg and Rockingham, according to Rothwell. He said there are likely two to three times as many injuries caused by the drugs that are not reported.
“It gets such a strong grip on people, even if they’d literally just been brought back to life for all intents and purposes, they’re not willing to further that investigation or help themselves out of that situation,” Rothwell said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
The crisis is a medical one that arrests alone can’t solve, according to Lt. Josiah Schiavone of the Virginia State Police, who worked in the Northwest Drug Task Force that covers from Rockingham and Harrisonburg north to the state line and east to Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax counties.
Typically, drug waves come in seven- to 10-year time periods, such as heroin in the the 1970s and cocaine and crack in the 1980s, according to Schiavone. He said opioids became prevalent in the early 2010s.
“From then, it’s just been on a constant rise,” Schiavone said.
He said the features of fentanyl, a cheap to synthesize and transport opioid, have led to its rise. But fentanyl is constantly synthesized in different ways, resulting in different potency without warning.
“That’s why you’re having so many overdoes,” Schiavone said. “There’s no consistency with the potency.”
Fentanyl’s destruction isn’t only happening in the Valley, said Nicky Fadley, founder and executive director at Strength In Peers, a group that helps those dealing with substance abuse and other issues.
“People are taking opioids without knowing what they’re doing, and it’s resulting nationwide in an epidemic of overdoses,” Fadley said.
Hahn said she has seen many opioid overdoses, especially when she lived in Franklin, W.Va.
West Virginia has seen the highest rate of opioid overdoses in the nation, according to federal data. In 2015, there were 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people caused by opioid overdoses in the Mountain State, according to an article in the National Library of Medicine.
Hahn said she has also overdosed multiple times over the years.
Rothwell said stories like Hahn’s, where prescription pills open gateways to newer and even more harmful drugs, are not uncommon.
“The effect it had on communities is immeasurable,” Schiavone said.
Prescription opioids “were mismarketed. They were pushed out by pharmaceutical companies. They were overprescibed. It’s a different kind of prescription. It grabs hold of you physically and mentally,” Schiavone said.
On Tuesday, Harrisonburg City Council will consider a resolution to accept funds from a negotiated legal settlement between prescription opioid pharmaceutical companies and an array of state attorneys general, including Virginia’s Mark Herring.
In the settlement, Virginia could receive $530 million combined from the pharmaceutical distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen and manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson, according to city documents.
The companies agreed to pay up to $26 billion combined for the damages caused to the American public.
Of the funds, 15% would be divided up for localities, like Rockingham and Harrisonburg, while another 15% would go to the state. The remainder, 70% of the funds, would go to the Virginia Opioid Abatement Fund and other abatement initiatives, according to the city’s resolution.
The 15% for localities will be for general use, while 10.5% will be divided up to localities for their own abatement approaches, according to a memo from Wesley Russ, assistant city attorney, to Eric Campbell, city manager.
When Hahn found out the entire state could get $530 million in the settlement, she shook her head and sighed as she pulled out another Pall Mall cigarette.
“Can you believe that?” she said in disbelief. “Can you believe that?” she repeated a moment later.
Living day to day on the streets has caused more physical pain for Hahn, pushing her more toward the opioids that have done so much damage to her life already. She remains determined, though, to not return to the depths of her addiction.
“It has got to get better one day,” Hahn said.