LAUREN CUMMINGS

Lauren Cummings

Warren County can now benefit from a federal program aimed at tackling the opioid epidemic.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy announced this week that it added Warren County to the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program. The office added 13 counties across the country to the program in this round, with Warren County as the only locality in Virginia making the list.

Congress created the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program to facilitate coordination among federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies designated as critical drug-trafficking regions. The program also aims to help law enforcement agencies share intelligence; design effective enforcement strategies and operations; and support coordinated efforts to cut the supply of illegal drugs in the United States.

Warren County Sheriff Mike Arnold said by phone Thursday that he expects to know in the coming weeks more details about how inclusion in the program will affect his agency and its work with the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force. Arnold said he plans to meet with the program coordinator to discuss what will be available to Warren County. He then will meet with his staff members as well as task-force representatives and decide what the agencies need the most through the program, he said.

“Well, any time you get more resources than you have available to you I think, it’s a huge opportunity, so I think it’s one of those things where it will open another door for us on avenues that we can use to try and combat the drug problem that we have,” Arnold said. “So I’m looking forward to meeting everybody and getting into it and figuring out what we can do with this to chip away at (the drug problem).”

Virginia State Police Supervisory Special Agent Joshua Price heads up the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force. He commented in an email about Warren County’s inclusion in the federal program and noted that the locality, like others in the Shenandoah Valley and across the state, has experienced the effects of the opioid epidemic.

This marks the third year that the task force applied to the Office of National Drug Control Policy asking the agency to consider adding Warren County to the trafficking area, Price said.

“It is a highly competitive process,” he noted.

The task force also asked the office to add Shenandoah County to the program but Price said the county did not make the list in this round.

Warren County and eight other law enforcement agencies make up the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.

“Receiving this designation facilitates coordination between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies,” Price said. “The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force will receive additional federal funding, access to state of the art equipment, and the ability to provide our law enforcement officers with additional training.

“The focus of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Program is to provide law enforcement with resources they need to locate, dismantle, and disrupt drug trafficking organizations responsible for saturating our communities with illicit drugs,” Price went on to say.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition covers Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren. Coalition Executive Director Lauren Cummings said by phone Thursday the decision to include Warren County in the federal program area would help the organization in its efforts to address the growing opioid epidemic in the region. That assistance also could mean more federal grant money made available to the coalition for initiatives such as the drug court.

As Cummings explained, inclusion in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program allows for greater information-sharing among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“For us, it has been extremely helpful in providing treatment funding for our drug treatment court,” Cummings said. “So it (the program) does allow the opportunity for additional grant funding, through the ... Office of National Drug Control Policy, for programming around getting more individuals into treatment.”

Localities included in the program can apply for grant funding to aid treatment and law enforcement. Only localities included in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program qualify for grants.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy added Frederick County to the program in 2016, Cummings said.

U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats representing Virginia, released a joint statement Wednesday about the agency’s decision. The senators note that the epidemic continues to hurt families across Virginia, despite increased public awareness about the dangers of opioids. They stated that they applaud the decision to add Warren County to the program.

Opioid overdoses surpassed car crashes and gun violence as the leading cause of death in Virginia, according to information provided by the senators. More than 1,500 overdose-related deaths occurred in Virginia in 2017.

Pharmacies in Warren County distributed an average of 45 pills per person, per year, between 2006 and 2012, the senators noted.

– Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com