By Kim Walter
Due to a noticeable increase in crime and related deaths and injuries, the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force is determined to combat local heroin use and trafficking.
The Command Board of the task force held a press conference Wednesday morning at the Frederick County Sheriff's Office to address the issue.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter, also the task force's chairman, was joined by representatives from all localities in the region, including Winchester, Front Royal, Strasburg, and Frederick, Clarke, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
Carter said that during this year alone, 14 people have died and 29 others have been injured from overdosing on heroin. The numbers are vastly different from 2012, when 17 people were injured and one person died from a heroin overdose.
While Carter suggested that there may be an issue with how the incidents were reported in some cases, he said the statistics still grabbed the attention of the Command Board.
"We don't know if this is just a short term thing, or if we could be looking at a long term trend," he said Wednesday. "But right now it's dangerous."
Last year, just less than 38 grams of heroin were seized in the region. However, Carter said there already has been one investigation in Warren County this year that resulted in about 168 grams of heroin being seized.
Carter said through multiple investigations over the last few years, the task force believes that heroin is coming from Baltimore and the Washington metropolitan area. But it isn't just from one or two suppliers who can easily be pinned down.
Frederick County Sheriff Robert Williamson said a variety of users in the area are traveling to Baltimore to buy small amounts of heroin -- enough to "feed their habit for a day." Sometimes, people have gone to purchase the drug two or three times in one day.
"But they aren't going to the same people, and it's not the same people going every time," he said. "From what I've heard, you can just walk down the right block and someone will approach you about buying heroin. You don't even have to ask."
Jay Perry, a special agent with Virginia State Police and coordinator of the regional drug task force, said heroin use can cost an average of $300 a day. Of course, that depends on the user.
He said a "typical heroin user" would use a tenth of a gram to "shoot up." While that amount could be bought for much less in Baltimore, it's being sold for about $100 here.
The problem with calling someone a "typical heroin user" is that the potency of the heroin that has infiltrated the region also has increased.
Carter noted that doses aren't guaranteed. "What you buy today might be too much for your body to handle tomorrow. What the suppliers are making is more pure than what we're used to seeing," he said.
Carter mentioned the fact that when a person becomes addicted to heroin, the relapse rate is extremely high, and a person quickly will become physically ill if he or she is not able to use.
Williamson said the need for the drug lends itself to growing crime rates in the area.
"People are breaking and entering, stealing credit card information, doing anything they can to get items so they can come up with the cash to support their habit," he said. "Apparently they go up to Baltimore, stop in a pawn shop, get their money, get their heroin, come back and use it, and then do the same thing all over again the next day."
One of the biggest problems keeping local law enforcement from building cases against these users and "drug rings" is state and federal standards, according to Williamson.
He said in order to prosecute someone for heroin use or distribution, legislation requires that the person be carrying a certain amount of the drug. Since so many locals are making quick trips for small doses, they hardly ever meet the standards, Williamson said.
"People continue to be on the street and commit crimes even though they've been identified as a heroin user," he said. "But we aren't able to build a sufficient case to get them in court. From my vantage point, this needs to be dealt with through legislature on the state and federal level."
Carter said from here, the task force plans to reach out to allied professionals and stakeholders in the community who can help combat the heroin presence. That likely will include commonwealth attorneys, federal partners, health officials and community resources, he said.
Williamson said the problem isn't just one for law enforcement.
"This is an issue for society," he said. "We've contacted plenty of people, representatives ... the heroin is something we're all aware of and ready to fight against, but at this point I don't think there's enough of us to cover the whole issue."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org