Deaths from heroin on the rise

Posted: June 20, 2013

The Winchester Star

Special Agent Jay Perry of the Virginia State Police speaks at a news conference on Tuesday in the Frederick County Public Safety Building that addressed the local heroin epidemic. Listening are Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter (left) and Frederick County Sheriff Robert T. Williamson. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — Heroin use is becoming an epidemic in the area and people are dying because of it.

That was the message at a press conference called on Wednesday by the Command Board of the Northwest Regional Drug Task Force in the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.

Task force chairman and Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter presented surprising numbers that he said had grabbed board members’ attention and convinced them to inform area residents about the matter.

He said 14 people have died from heroin use this year in the region and that 29 others have been injured from overdoses of the drug.

Winchester and Frederick County account for more than half of those deaths (eight) and about 40 percent of the other overdoses (12).

That’s a stark difference from 2012, when 17 people in the region overdosed on heroin and one person died during the year.

Acknowledging that the numbers may not be exact because of reporting issues, Carter said they still show a dramatic increase in recent months.

“I would not know at this point if this is a trend that we’re seeing — certainly it’s a trend for this year — but if it’s going to be a long-term trend or not, I’m not certain at this point,” Carter said.

Joined by officials from throughout the region — including Winchester, Front Royal and Strasburg and Frederick, Clarke, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties — Carter stressed that the area is not a distribution hub.

Local investigations have led law enforcement officials to believe that the majority of heroin in the area comes from the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area.

“I think the issue, really, is, they’re going to Baltimore to buy it and then they’re coming back here and using it,” said Frederick County Sheriff Robert T. Williamson.

He added that, typically, users buy about a gram or 0.1 gram — which is considered a small amount.

Users can obtain 0.1 gram for $20 to $25 in Baltimore — it is sold here for about $100.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, the task force coordinator, said supporting a heroin habit can cost an average of $300 a day — depending on the user.

Carter said heroin users have a high relapse rate, and that because withdrawal can lead to physical illness, they must use the drug often throughout the day.

Authorities said users sometimes make two to three trips a day to Baltimore.

The distribution hub is so inundated with the drug that authorities cannot identify a single source.

“It’s not like we’ve known pot to be, or we’ve known coke to be [in terms of dealers],” Williamson said. “You go down to the block ... I understand that you go there [to Baltimore] and people approach you wanting to sell; you don’t have to approach them.”

And as the use in the Winchester region increases, so do the dangers.

Carter said the task force has noted that the potency of the heroin infiltrating the region is not consistent — which may be a cause for the rise in overdoses.

“It’s a very dangerous issue that we’re dealing with,” he said.

Additionally, Williamson cautioned users that the drug’s doses are not guaranteed.

“What you buy today may not work tomorrow or may be too much tomorrow, and that’s some of the problem we’re seeing — some of the heroin is more pure than some of the rest of it,” he said.

Carter said that, last year, the task force confiscated just under 38 grams of heroin in the region.

Although he did not have total numbers for this year, he referred to one investigation in Warren County that yielded 168 grams — and that’s just “one team in one area.”

Williamson said that is an anomaly for typical cases, however, and that building cases against heroin users can be difficult, since state and federal guidelines require a certain amount of heroin to be involved before prosecution can be sought.

“We have to meet standards in order to prosecute either on the state level or the federal level and the court doesn’t want just one purchase, they want multiple purchases,” he said, adding that he believes the problem should be dealt with in the Legislature.

In the meantime, agencies must keep informants involved in cases and protect undercover agents, including officers.

Many informants, he added, are working for the agencies because they committed a similar offense — a situation which can also pose problems.

“You’ve got to keep them clean while they’re still working for you and that’s difficult to do,” Williamson said, reiterating heroin users’ high relapse rate.

Building a case can be a recipe for disaster — users are still using, informants’ and users’ lives are at risk and crimes are still being committed.

“We’re seeing these people continue to be on the street, continue to break in, continue to commit larceny — even though they’ve been identified as a heroin user, but we haven’t built a significant enough case to get them before the court,” Williamson said.

Investigators are finding that desperate heroin users are behind many of the county’s crimes, he added.

“We’re clearing breaking and enterings, we’re clearing larcenies, shopliftings, where the people say, ‘We have a heroin problem, we break in, we shoplift, we commit a grand larceny, we get the money, we go to Baltimore,’” Williamson said. “They pawn whatever it is they stole, go from the pawn shop right in Baltimore to the block, go to the block, buy their heroin, come back here and start the same old routine over the next day.

“Possession of heroin is illegal; in my opinion, that doesn’t matter how much you have — it’s illegal. I don’t think the Legislature sees it that way; I don’t think the courts see it that way.”

Winchester Police Chief Kevin Sanzenbacher said city officials are seeing a similar trend, in which users are seeking to steal anything; they’re looking for unlocked cars, taking credit cards and committing fraud.

He said it is a “vicious circle” that continues to have an impact the community.

To combat the epidemic, Carter said, the task force plans to contact “allied professionals and other stakeholders” in the coming months, including commonwealth’s attorneys, medical and health professionals, Social Services and federal and community partners.

“We are working hard to deal with this within our region,” he said.

Williamson added that the heroin problem has reached beyond law enforcement’s capabilities. He said it has become a societal issue.

“It is happening,” he said. “Baltimore, [Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], we’ve contacted everybody — Congressman Frank Wolf’s office, we’ve worked with him in trying to get this — it’s a problem that everybody is involved in, everybody’s interested in, but I’m not certain there’s enough of any of us to cover all the issue.”

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com