Heroin deaths spiked in 2014

Heroin deaths in the area soared by more than 60 percent in 2014 over the total for 2013, despite a slowing in the rate of overdose deaths in the last months of the year.

The 33 deaths counted by the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force were 12 more than the previous year.

The deaths were spread throughout the jurisdiction of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force — Frederick Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Clarke counties, plus Winchester and Front Royal.

The majority of the deaths were concentrated in Frederick County and Winchester. There were eight heroin or opioid overdose deaths in Warren County and Front Royal and two each in Shenandoah and Page counties.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, the coordinator the drug task force, said in an interview Monday that efforts to stem the spread of heroin are sometimes hindered by reluctance among friends and family members of victims to accept that a loved one’s death was caused by a heroin overdose.

Toxicology and autopsy reports often come back showing heroin was one of several drugs contained in a “cocktail” consumed by a victim in the hours before his death.

As a result, Perry said, sometimes the Office of the State Medical Examiner “doesn’t report it the same as we do.”

Those close to someone who died after consuming heroin seize on the presence of other drugs listed in autopsy and toxicology reports as evidence that the victim died from causes other than heroin, Perry said.

“Heroin is stigmatized as a dirty drug that junkies use, and that’s absolutely false,” Perry said. “It affects people in all walks of life.

“If people would stop stigmatizing drugs, we could get a little more outreach. There would be a little more acceptance and a little more treatment.”

Perry said most of the heroin reaching the Shenandoah Valley through suppliers in Baltimore originates in South America.

Some national media outlets have reported a decrease in marijuana reaching the U.S. from Mexico since several states and the District of Columbia have voted to legalize the drug. The legalization movement has led to a greater supply of marijuana, a drop in marijuana prices and an incentive for drug cartels to begin switching to heroin and methamphetamine as alternatives for American drug users.

“It’s more profitable,” Perry said of heroin, which is produced from poppies. “They’re basically digging up marijuana fields and planting poppy fields.”

Perry said he did not have information on how much of the region’s heroin is produced in Mexico and how much comes from elsewhere in Latin America.

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