Heroin deaths declining this year

The death toll from heroin overdoses in the area fell sharply during the first half of the year, despite few signs that the flow of the drug into the region is slackening or that fewer heroin-related crimes are being committed.

As of June 30, 12 people had died from overdoses in Frederick, Shenandoah, Clarke, Warren and Page counties and Winchester, the jurisdictions served by the Northern Virginia Regional Drug Task Force.

The death toll for the same six-month period last year stood at 20, a pace that tapered off in the last six months of 2014, which ended with 33 deaths.

Shenandoah and Frederick counties have each recorded three deaths so far this year. Another two were in Winchester, followed by one each in Warren and Clarke counties and one each in Strasburg and Front Royal.

The most recent death was a 33-year-old-man in Frederick County who overdosed last week.

Most of this year’s deaths and non-fatal overdoses were among males. Heroin has claimed the lives of 10 males and two females so far. There have been 17 non-fatal overdoses among males and 11 among females.

Reasons for the drop in overdose deaths are murky.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, coordinator of the drug task force, said he welcomed the trend but couldn’t explain it.

“I’m not sure if there is a reason,” Perry said. “Where we haven’t seen a decrease is in what’s coming into this area. Maybe people are just getting the message now.”

Tim Coyne, the head of the public defender office in Winchester and a member of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, said the court system remains filled with cases involving the use and sale of heroin and opiate-based prescription drugs.

“I continue to see a steady stream of people who are addicted to various substances,” Coyne said. “Even though it may not be drug offenses, they’re out in the community committing offenses, shoplifting and breaking and entering.”

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors have documented a well-established connection between addicts and dealers operating in the northern Shenandoah Valley and suppliers in Baltimore.

Perry said the drug task force is continuing to focus on nabbing what he described as higher-level dealers in Baltimore. A riot swept through part of the city earlier this year, and several police were arrested in connection with the death of an unarmed black suspect in custody. A related backlash by police against the prosecution of their fellow officers followed. Since then, some have attributed a spike in the city’s murder rate and decrease in arrests to a perceived work slowdown by police.

Perry said he didn’t think Baltimore’s troubles were affecting the availability of heroin the area.

“We’ve been getting a normal volume of heroin coming into the area from Baltimore,” Perry said, adding that local addicts and dealers can still get heroin “any way they want.”

A pair of state laws that took effect Wednesday was passed by the General Assembly in the hope they would save the lives of overdose victims. One is intended to encourage drug users or dealers to call for emergency help when they see someone has overdosed. Those calling first responders can invoke their willingness to summon help as an affirmative defense should they be charged with a drug-related crime arising from the same incident.

The law does not guarantee anyone immunity from arrest or prosecution, but “it will shed a good light on them,” Perry said, adding that charging decisions remain in the hands of prosecutors.

A second law authorizes properly trained firefighters and police to possess and administer Naloxone to overdose victims. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, has proved highly effective when paramedics and doctors have used it to revive heroin overdose victims who were in danger of dying.

Coyne said the nonprofit Northern Shenandoah Valley Drug Abuse Coalition continues to work on a range of anti-heroin projects such as expanding addicts’ access to drug treatment programs, peer recovery coaches who help those trying to shake their addiction and education programs aimed at students and the general public.

Coyne said he hopes to see the area’s first drug court begin operating by July 2016, but much work remains to be done to obtain funding and complete a painstaking approval process administered by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Drug courts are established as alternatives to traditional crime and punishment options in the legal system. Their most notable features are placement of offenders in intensive treatment and other anti-addiction programs; regular and random drug tests; frequent reviews by a judge who evaluates an offender’s progress; and rewards and punishments that reflect how well an offender is meeting requirements imposed on him by the court.

“I’m going to remain eternally optimistic that it will happen,” Coyne said of the drug court. “I’m committed to it happening, but a lot of things are going to have to fall into place.”

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