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Heroin overdose deaths surge past total for 2013

By Joe Beck

WOODSTOCK -- The number of deaths in the area attributed to heroin overdoses this year has exceeded the total for 2013, law enforcement officials told the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Sheriff Timothy Carter showed board members the number of deaths rising from one in 2012 to 21 in 2013 to 22 so far this year in the jurisdiction of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, an area encompassing Winchester and Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren, Page and Clarke counties.

The number of arrests for heroin-related offenses has also exceeded last year's total. The task force recorded about 55 arrests in 2012, about 90 in 2013 and more than 120 so far this year.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, the coordinator of the drug task force and Commonwealth's Attorney Amanda Wiseley joined Carter for the presentation. The drug task force is made up mostly of law enforcement officials from agencies in each of the member counties.

Perry said the task force investigations into heroin sales and possession are greatly helped when members can quickly reach overdose victims.

"We've been very successful when we're called to the scene," Perry said, adding that victims stunned by their experience are often willing to talk about how they obtained the drug and identify suppliers.

"We reach them at the low point of their lives," Perry said of the victims.

Perry said the majority of the region's heroin problem remained concentrated in Winchester and Frederick County but overdoses and drug transaction have recently been creeping southward into Warren and Shenandoah counties.

Perry said the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and the state of Washington is indirectly fueling the spread of heroin in the United States. South American drug cartels that sell marijuana cultivated in their part of world have begun growing poppies from which they derive heroin for sale in the United States, Perry said.

The decision to switch from marijuana plantings to poppies is a business decision driven by increased competition from state-sanctioned marijuana production and sales in the United States, Perry said.

Carter told the board that business and economic considerations are also big factors among consumers, many of whom band together and pool their money to buy heroin. Carter said one or more members of the group are assigned to travel to Baltimore to buy heroin at open-air drug markets. The buyers then return to the area and distribute the heroin among other group members.

Drug abusers have turned toward heroin because of its low cost compared to other opioid drugs such as oxycodone. Carter said a gram of heroin costs $130 to $160.

Drug task force seizures of heroin and other opioid drugs have been increasing along with the number of arrests and deaths. There were 1,472 doses -- each the equivalent of a single pill -- seized in 2012, 1,884 in 2013 and 1,278 seized so far this year.

Carter and Perry repeated previous calls they have made for more cooperation among social service agencies, schools, health care providers and nonprofit organizations in finding ways to fight the spread of heroin. They also urged state and local officeholders to provide more money for law enforcement, treatment and prevention programs.

"We recognize we can't arrest our way out of this," Carter said.

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

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