Lawmakers hear ideas for curbing heroin

By Joe Beck

WINCHESTER — Local law enforcement officials, prosecutors and others turned to state lawmakers Wednesday in urging legislative action to help stem the tide of heroin flowing into the area.

Common threads ran through the proposals fielded at a special meeting of the House Committee for Courts of Justice Criminal Law Subcommittee.

Timothy Coyne, head of the public defender’s office in Winchester, was among several speakers who warned the legislators that a single-minded focus on law enforcement was doomed to fail unless accompanied by a comprehensive plan that included public health, education, treatment and recovery programs.

“We can’t simply arrest and incarcerate our way out of this problem,” Coyne told the subcommittee chaired by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. “It’s going to take more than that.”

Virginia State Police Capt. Gary T. Settle and Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter opened the meeting with an array of data on the number of overdoses, overdose deaths and amounts of heroin seized by law enforcement officials in Virginia and around the nation in recent years.

Carter, who is chairman of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, said that a single heroin overdose death in 2012 in the northern Shenandoah Valley heralded the beginning of a scourge that reached 25 deaths from January through September 2014 in the region. The task force coordinates and spearheads drug investigations in Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah and Page counties and Winchester.

“Had that many people died in such a small geographic area of the commonwealth of virus, violence or automobile crashes, we would probably be sitting here today and talking about how many millions of dollars we were going to spend to mitigate such a problem,” Carter said.

Carter called the surge in heroin use “a far greater problem” of how people try to cope with “stress, anxiety and pain” in their everyday lives.

“They want a magic solution to their problems,” Carter said, “and unfortunately this is sometimes seen as alcohol, over the counter meds and pharmaceutical meds, and sometimes it leads into illicit drugs, illegal drugs.

Heroin is now the drug of choice in this region.”

Coyne, who leads a subcommittee of the Addiction Action Committee, a community group formed to propose answers to the heroin epidemic, said he and other members of his organization have been impressed by the track record of courts specially created in other communities to handle drug cases.

So-called drug courts rely heavily on frequent drug testing, counseling and treatment, along with tight supervision of offenders while they remain in the community. Coyne said one study of some of the 37 drug courts in Virginia showed they saved about $20,000 for each participant when compared with a period of incarceration for the same person.

Gilbert said he and other members of the committee endorsed the purpose of drug courts but questioned why existing circuit courts could not perform the same tasks.

Coyne replied that drug courts operate under special authority from the state Supreme Court and rely on separate funding, most of it from local sources.

The success of drug courts really depends on having the infrastructure around the court,” Coyne said. “It’s not just going in front of a judge every couple of weeks to see how you’re doing and whether sanctions should be imposed.”

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors called for a change in state law that would make it easier to charge someone with murder if he provided heroin to a person who later died or barely survived an overdose.

A recent ruling by the state Court of Appeals requires prosecutors seeking a murder conviction to show that a heroin overdose resulting in death or bodily injury occurred while the victim and drug provider were in the same place at the same time during the overdose.

Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, said he and other committee members were sympathetic to much of what they heard, but warned that budgetary problems may prevent Richmond from delivering much immediate help.

“This is kind of a forewarning that if most of the ideas that were presented to this committee don’t end up becoming law on next July 1, it’s not because we don’t understand, we don’t get it, we don’t agree with you,” Miller said. “We do understand. We get it. We agree with you. It’s a simple fact that that money won’t be there because there are so many competing interests.”

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