RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Twenty-eight years ago, Michael Zohab left his job as a bartender to become a police officer. However, about four years ago Capt. Zohab felt he needed to "re-write the book" on how the Richmond Police Department was handling the city's war on drugs.
"I started seeing the criminal justice system was not where people should be, because addiction is a disease, not a choice. The criminal justice system is not equipped to give people the care that they need," said Zohab.
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Zohab has spent most of his law enforcement career investigating drug cases, even working undercover. He's also watched first hand as heroin use has gripped Richmond, and overdoes numbers have skyrocketed.
"We're having triple digit increases for the last three years. We haven't crested the peak of this epidemic. It's going to get worse," Zohab said.
Last December, he started the RVA Recovery Project, part of the Virginia Recovery Foundation. The project offers free recovery services and placement to anyone who overdoses in the city of Richmond.
Zohab says the program is all volunteers, funded by donations, and runs at no cost to tax payers.
So far in 2017 there have been 60 non-fatal overdoses, and four overdose deaths, Zohab says. However, 17 people have been placed into drug treatment programs through the RVA Recovery Project.
"One of the people we placed was the girlfriend of an individual that overdosed. She kept our card. He told us he wasn't ready in very colorful way after he started feeling better at the hospital. Six hours later she called and said, 'You know what I want help,'" Zohab said.
Zohab's motivation for the program is not only professional, but also personal. His nephew died of an overdose last April. He says he told his nephew about his plan to launch the RVA recovery project before his death.
"We talked about it when we, we were on a family vacation a year and a half ago," said Zohab. "I discussed it with him and he was all over it. He was very excited. I'm sure he'd be proud."
Beside getting addicts into treatment, the Virginia Recovery Foundation focused on training for law enforcement, and educating schools, families, and communities. Zohab says he's working with VCU's Rams in Recovery to start a mental health and substance abuse awareness program in a Henrico high school.
"This disease has a huge negative footprint on families and society. You talk to young siblings and older siblings and they will never be the same because they are seeing the harm done to their family. The torment done to their parents, it takes families and tears them apart," Zohab said.
Capt. Zohab will retire this year, but says his work isn't done. He wants more people to be talking about Virginia's heroin problem, and working to find solutions.
"It's more awareness. It's not in the shadows as much. So people are coming out and saying I need help," said Zohab.
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