Drugs Ravage Eastern Panhandle

Local authorities are working to eradicate the narcotics problem plaguing the Eastern Panhandle.
Local authorities are working to eradicate the narcotics problem plaguing the Eastern Panhandle.



THE PICKET – It may come from the innocuous-seeming poppy seed, but make no mistake, there is nothing tame about heroin, the opioid ravaging the Eastern Panhandle and surrounding regions.


Baltimore is a major entry point for heroin in this region, and much of the heroin in West Virginia can be traced there. WV MetroNews reports that federal authorities arrested 41 people last summer in an attempt to break up a heroin distribution ring. The main supplier, Brian Hall of Baltimore, was arrested along with 34 West Virginians, including residents of Martinsburg, Berkeley Springs, Ranson, and Kearneysville. Authorities say Hall’s customers brought up to two kilograms of heroin a month into West Virginia.


More recently, Baltimore City Police and federal authorities broke up a distribution ring in West Baltimore on March 11, the Baltimore Sun reports. Five of the 21 arrested face federal charges, bringing between five and 40 years in prison for those convicted of conspiracy to distribute heroin, and up to 20 years for each conviction on a count of distribution.


Closer to home, Jefferson County was recently designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, joining Berkeley County, which was deemed as such in 2014. The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy oversees the HIDTA program, and reports that the 28 high-intensity areas cover just over 17 percent of the country’s counties, and over 60 percent of the American population lives in one. Jefferson and Berkeley counties are connected to the greater Washington-Baltimore HIDTA, which also covers the District of Columbia and counties in Northern Virginia and central Maryland.


To be designated a HIDTA, a county must meet the White House’s criteria. The area must be a center for drug production or trafficking, state and local police must have committed resources to tackling the problem, drugs must have a significant harmful impact on the area, and a significant increase in federal funding must be necessary to continue fighting the drug problem in the area.


Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty said that last year there were approximately 140 overdoses in Jefferson County, noting that that number only takes into account incidents law enforcement was called to respond. He also reported that in the six-county region that includes the Eastern Panhandle, the rate of cocaine use is 116 percent of the national average, the rate of non-prescription pain pill abuse is 115 percent, and the rate of general use of illicit drugs besides marijuana is 127 percent of the national average. Conversely, Dougherty said, marijuana use in the area is below the national average, at 85 percent.


According to a report last year from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, West Virginia had more than 25 drug overdoses per every 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the nation. Five community health centers in West Virginia are receiving $1.7 million as part of a nationwide anti-drug initiative spearheaded by the Obama administration providing $94 million to health centers across the country.


Dougherty praised the drug court system the state has put in place to help addicts. There are two types of drug court, one for juveniles and one for adults.


According to Michael B. Lacy, director of probation services for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the goal of the juvenile drug court program is to “divert non-violent juvenile offenders exhibiting alcohol or substance abuse behavior from the traditional juvenile court process to an intensive, individualized treatment process which includes parental involvement and cooperation.”


Dougherty lauded the “phenomenal” success rate of the program while pointing out its rigors.“It’s not a t-ball program, not everybody gets a trophy for participation,” he said.


Juveniles in the drug court program must report every week, and they and their parents or guardians must participate in counseling and meetings with a drug court probation officer. “Young people get mixed up in drugs, [it] causes family problems,” Dougherty said. He also acknowledged the graduates of the juvenile drug court program that have gone back to school, graduated, and moved on to college or military service.


The adult drug court program is much more strict. Participants in the adult program must meet every day and are drug tested several times a week. Many participants are on home confinement, Dougherty said, and those who are not have their movements tracked by the Sheriff’s Department at all times, accurate to three meters. If several participants are found to be getting together, the department is alerted.

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