By Joe Beck
The heroin epidemic has continued to tighten its grip on five counties in the northern Shenandoah Valley according to new 2014 figures released by the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force earlier this week.
The task force reported a total of 64 overdoses that resulted in death or serious injury in Winchester, Front Royal, Strasburg, Middletown and Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah, Warren and Page counties as of Aug. 22.
Heroin and other opiate drug overdoses began plaguing Winchester and Frederick County in 2013. The figures from 2014 show that overdoses are spreading into other parts of the task force's jurisdiction.
Deaths have tended to appear in groups of two or three within a few days of each other. The death toll included 18 men and five women.
Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, coordinator of the regional drug task force, said FBI agents earlier this year killed a heroin dealer in Baltimore who had been supplying addicts in this area.
"We attributed to him at least two overdose deaths," Perry said Thursday.
Perry speculated that overdoses tend to appear in clusters because addicts identify what they perceive as the most desirable heroin, which is also the kind most likely to result in an overdose, and obtain the drug from the same supplier.
"In their mindset, that is really potent heroin, and they really want to get ahold of it," Perry said. "In their mind, it is good stuff."
Frederick County, including Winchester and Middletown, has continued to record more overdoses than other areas. The 64 reported deaths and injuries included 44 within Frederick County, 10 in Warren County, seven in Shenandoah County, two in Page County and one in Clarke County.
The victims' average age was 31. The youngest was 19 and the oldest 66.
Perry said the potency of the heroin consumed by a user is a common factor in overdoses. In some cases, an addict has stayed clean for several months, and his body loses tolerance for the drug. If the addict abruptly resumes his habit at the former dosage level, the result is often an overdose, Perry said.
Other overdoses are caused by users mixing heroin with prescription medications, Perry
In another development Thursday, Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said a special legislative committee meeting has been scheduled in Winchester to take recommendations from law enforcement officials, prosecutors and others on how lawmakers can help slow the heroin epidemic.
The meeting of the House Courts of Justice Criminal Law Subcommittee is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 1 in the Brandt Student Center at Shenandoah University.
"This is right here in our rural community," Gilbert said of the heroin problem. "It's right now, and it's very dangerous and very bad. We have been behind the curve but we are going to do our very best to try to get ahead of it here."
Gilbert said the committee will be looking for specific recommendations for the legislature to consider.
"We're not looking to repeat other conversations that have already been held," Gilbert said. "We are not looking to just hear ourselves talk. We want specific recommendations from lawmakers, prosecutors and other stakeholders in the community."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Reported by the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force
Male Deaths: 18 Female Deaths: 5
Male Injuries: 24 Female Injuries: 17