CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The leading cause of unnatural death in Virginia is drug overdose, according to the Department of Health (VDH), which is why state leaders and one local mother are working to spread awareness about the dangerous of counterfeit drugs and fentanyl.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jason Miyares launched the “One Pill Can Kill” initiative, aiming to generate open conversations amongst families about the threat of these substances.

“It has reached a crisis proportion, and so that means we have to do every tool we can to try to attack this scourge,” Miyares said. “That means both prevention, prosecution and, blessedly, recovery.”

According to VDH, drug overdoses have been the leading cause of death in the state since 2013. Opioids, specifically fentanyl, have been the driving force behind the large increases statewide. In 2021, fentanyl contributed to 76.4% of all Virginia overdose deaths, according to a release.

Chesterfield County mother Marie Milby knows the horror of that statistic all too well.

“My daughter was addicted to pain pills because she had a problem with her leg,” Milby said of her daughter, Jolynn. “She thought it was a pain pill, and come to find out it was heroin with fentanyl.”

Jolynn was just 21 yeas old when she passed away in February of 2020. Milby said she and her other daughter came home and found Jolynn unresponsive.

“[My other daughter] called 9-1-1, and they worked on her for four hours, and they couldn’t bring her back,” Milby said. “I prayed so hard that she would come [back], and they just couldn’t. It must’ve been too long.”

It’s a tragedy that thousands of families across the Commonwealth experienced last year, according to VDH data. The total number of fatal fentanyl overdoses increased 22.8% from 2020 to 2021. It was estimated that in 2021 that 98% of fatal fentanyl overdoses in Virginia were caused by the illicit — rather than prescription — version of the drug, according to a release from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

“I didn’t know anything about stuff like that,” Milby told 8News. “I didn’t know that if I would’ve had a can of Narcan, I could’ve saved her. I didn’t know any of that.”

That’s why Milby is working to raise awareness and push for more efforts at the local and state levels to remove these substances from communities.

“I never thought in a million years I would have to go through this. But I am,” she said. “If I could do it all over again, I would research it more.”

Marie Milby wears a necklace containing the ashes of her daughter, Jolynn, who died from a drug overdose in 2020. (Photo: Olivia Jaiquith, 8News)

According to the OAG, the opioid epidemic has prompted an increase in counterfeit drugs, deceptively marketed to look like real medication. More than 100,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“One pill can take a life. One pill can rob you of your dreams. One pill can deny your family of seeing you again, of ever having a normal holiday because you had your life taken too soon,” Miyares said. “Part of our job is to remind people that mistakes will not define your life, that your past shouldn’t define your future, and that the biggest sign of strength if you’re dealing with addiction is just admitting that you need help.”

Milby said that Jolynn always had a big personality. She loved people, she loved school and she loved life.

“I miss my daughter every day, and around the holidays, it’s worse because I don’t have her,” Milby said. “Jolynn loved kids. She would’ve made a good mom. But we lost her way too early, way too early.”