Local officials tell Herring of heroin, mental health issues

By Joe Beck

WINCHESTER — The spread of heroin and coping with mentally ill people adrift in society topped the list of worries local authorities brought before Attorney General Mark Herring on Monday in Winchester.

Several members from law enforcement agencies warned that a strategy that relies mostly on drug interdiction is not enough to curb heroin’s increasing presence in the area. They noted two overdose deaths last week alone in Frederick County, which brought the area’s death toll to nine so far this year.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, who coordinates the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, warned that the area is on track for 40 heroin overdose deaths this year at the current rate.

“We’re just inundated with it,” Perry said of heroin.

Frederick County Sheriff Robert Williamson said social service agencies are also being swamped with the fallout from increasing heroin addiction. He cited heroin addiction among parents no longer able to care properly for their children as the reason for a tripling of enrollment in the county’s foster care program.

“It’s not law enforcement’s issue, it’s not government’s issue, it’s society’s issue,” Williamson said of heroin.

Herring, a Democrat who was a state senator before he narrowly defeated State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, in the attorney general’s race in 2013, told the gathering of about 25 that a shortage of funding has been one of the common themes he has heard in visits to other parts of the state.

“While I don’t have a vote on the state budget any longer,” Herring said, “I will be an advocate for you. I know you can’t do law enforcement and prosecution on the cheap.”

Perry called for a change in the state law that prevents local authorities from charging heroin dealers with homicide-related offenses in the deaths of overdose victims if the dealer is not present at the place and time of the overdose. Instead, local officials are limited to charging a suspected dealer with distribution of the drug.

As a result, Perry said, his agency seeks to have such cases transferred to the federal level where a dealer who was absent during a fatal overdose can still be linked to the victim’s death. Such cases call for a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal court, Perry said.

Suni Mackall, Clarke County Commonwealth’s attorney, urged adoption of new strategies “way outside the box” of conventional thinking about the heroin issue.

“My feeling is the war on drugs just has not worked at all, at all,” Mackall said. “What we have to do is completely change our public policy

The adrenaline rush athletes get from physical exercise may be one path for people to obtain a psychological high without resorting to heroin use, Mackall said.

“I think there’s got to be a huge public policy push toward fitness, physical fitness, and then, as you get older, a tax deduction and breaks for people who meet certain fitness requirements,” Mackall said.

James F. Whitley, superintendent of the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center, was among several officials who warned that jails are turning into de facto mental health institutions.

People experiencing acute mental health problems and lacking proper treatment and supervision often run into trouble with the law and end up in jail, Whitley said. Of a total jail population of 600, about 80 to 90 have an identifiable mental illness, he said.

“I run the largest mental health facility in Virginia,” Whitley said, adding that he has 14 beds specially reserved for mentally ill patients who are “highly suicidal or they’re so unmanageable.”

Williamson, a Republican, said he voted for Obenshain in the election but appreciated Herring’s outreach effort to local law enforcement officials like himself.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been sought out by an attorney general asking my opinion, and I think that’s commendable,” Williamson said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com