All hands on deck to fight heroin war

Posted: August 22, 2013

The Winchester Star

Among the heroin-related items seized by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and now used for training are a one-ounce bag of the drug (top left) and plastic vials with colorful lids used by dealers in Baltimore, Md., according to Capt. Allen Sibert. Also pictured are plastic and heat-sealed storage bags, some containing folded paper with the drug inside. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
Capt. Allen Sibert holds a glassine envelope containing heroin that was taken from a drug user. He said the purity of the drug leads him to believe it came from Afghanistan.
A complete “shoot kit” taken from a heroin user is now used to train law enforcement officers at the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. Clockwise from top are the small baggie the drug comes in when purchased, a large baggie to hold the shoot kit, a soda can bottom used to cook impurities from the drug (impurities can be seen on the top of the can), a Tic Tac container with empty gel capsules used to hold the drug. and a syringe for injecting it. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — It’s likely going to take more than just law enforcement to tackle the area’s growing heroin epidemic.

The Northwest Regional Drug Task Force on Monday participated in a heroin summit, along with representatives from local, state and federal agencies, to discuss critical issues related to the heroin overdoses plaguing the area.

To date this year, there have been 16 heroin overdose deaths, with most in Frederick County and Winchester, and more than 30 non-fatal overdoses. That’s a stark difference from 2012, when 17 people in the region overdosed on heroin, resulting in one death.

“We’re getting a death about every other week,” said Jay Perry, a task force special agent. “And it’s affecting all walks of life.”

In addition to the nine-member task force command board, participants at the Warren County Public Safety Building included officials from the United States Attorney’s Office, Drug Enforcement Administration, Valley Health, Northwestern Community Services, the District Office of Probation and Parole, and law enforcement agencies throughout the region.

The task force is comprised of people from the Virginia State Police, Winchester, Strasburg and Front Royal police departments and Shenandoah, Clarke, Warren, Frederick and Page county sheriff’s offices.

Perry, along with other law enforcement authorities and area treatment center directors, agree that education is key to beginning a long-term effort to combat the issue.

To put the gravity of the issue into perspective, Perry said the task force has seized more heroin to date this year than the last three to four years combined.

“It’s one of the toughest drugs to combat because it’s so addictive and has a high relapse rate,” he said.

Perry said addicts will do anything they can to get their hands on heroin to keep from getting ill, including committing crimes to support their habit.

Capt. Allen Sibert of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office said he has seen a progression over the years leading to the current epidemic, and speculated that with the economy still down, people see heroin as a moneymaker.

That’s where the problem begins.

“Everybody wants to make their buck on it and everybody’s doing it,” Sibert said. “You don’t even have to find a market, it found you.”

Once everyone starts selling it, providers want to be competitive and try to make a better product — which can easily lead to an overdose.

“These addicts who are used to getting a 25 percent pure bag of heroin are all of a sudden getting bags that are 35 or 40 percent pure and they have no idea,” Sibert said.

So they mix it up their usual way and take a hit that could be toxic.

“That syringe is just like a gun: When you pull the trigger, you can’t get that bullet back,” he said.

He said an overdose hits so fast that a lot of times when law enforcement is called — if a scene has not been manipulated by friends or family members — the syringe will still be in the addict’s arm.

He said that addicts pursue the dealer whose heroin can give them the best high, despite knowing the potential dangers.

“They think they can handle it and they want the high that comes with it,” he said. “They flock to it.”

Heroin not only affects the mind, but also the body, according to John Lindsey, clinical director of Winchester addiction services PLC.

The treatment center was established in 2007 and initially was the first outpatient program that specialized in addiction disorders.

It treats all compulsions for all addictions, but clients are usually alcohol or opiate addicted, Lindsey said.

“It’s a rehabilitation for the mind as it’s a rehabilitation for the body,” he added. “It’s difficult to do both, because a lot of times clients aren’t looking for both — they’re just looking for rehabilitation for the body.”

Withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin are oftentimes the driving force behind that.

“I would say, if those symptoms weren’t real, that a lot of clients would not necessarily be motivated to seek treatment,” Lindsey said. “A lot of times what you’ll hear is, ‘I have to get well’ — which is, what they’re saying is, I would stop if I could stop, but I can’t stop because if I stop I get sick.

“Just curing those symptoms doesn’t necessarily cure an addiction.”

David J. Semanco, director of program development at Bridging the Gaps Inc. — an integrative addictions treatment facility in Winchester — agrees.

“We try to address the root cause,” he said of his residential treatment program.

That includes tackling what emotionally may be driving one’s addiction to the drug and helping to alleviate the physical side of withdrawals.

Most of the acute, severe withdrawal symptoms occur within the first five to seven days and have been compared to an extreme form of the flu, Semanco said.

“Withdrawals provide a massive sense of pain and the quickest way to get rid of that pain is to reach for the drug,” he explained.

So how do you stop such a strong desire to get high?

There has to be a desire on the part of the user.

“People come into treatment when they identify that their compulsive behavior is chaotic, and that’s just the bottom line,” Lindsey said.

He added that it’s difficult to talk to somebody in the throws of addiction about recovery.

“If someone is actively using, I don’t know that there is much to say to them, other than you know, the door is open when you’re ready,” he said. “You can’t have a desperate conversation with someone who’s not interested.”

As for the overdoses, he said most times addicts don’t know they’ve gone that far.

“I don’t think anyone is purposefully overdosing, they’re miscalculating — primarily because they’re trying to alleviate a feeling and gain a feeling and not being rational,” he said. “If somebody wants an effect, they’re going to go for it, we have to remember that overdose is not intentional, it’s just a consequence of the drug — a very, very medical consequence.”

Fear, Lindsey added — though usually an initial reason for seeking treatment — should not be the sole motivation for recovery.

“Eventually fear dissipates,” he said. “In order to sustain the act of sobriety, it has to transfer from fear to meaningful fulfillment of a role. In other words, instead of being afraid of losing my family, I have to be able to enjoy fulfilling my role within my family.”

Semanco said once a person is addicted, they cannot be cured, only treated and put into recovery.

He said one of the biggest reasons behind not seeking treatment can be fear and shame.

“It’s hard, it’s difficult to stop on their own, and they need support,” he said.

Lindsey said he does not believe there will ever be a perfect equation or solution.

“There’s no cure for free will, or abuse of free will,” he said. “People find success through different avenues — it’s consistency that works.”

Perry said that the task force hopes to come up with a comprehensive action plan in the near future to address all aspects of the area’s heroin problem.

“There was just another heroin overdose death on Saturday in Stephens City,” he pointed out. “We’re trying to figure out what all resources out there are available.”

Resources that, along with treatment, include seeking federal prosecution and mandatory minimum sentences for those responsible for providing the drugs leading to the overdoses.

“This isn’t something that we’re going to tolerate,” Perry said. “We don’t want our citizens dying.”

— Contact Melissa Boughton at