WV sees increase in heroin use
October 13, 2009 · After targeting primarily cocaine and prescription drug abuse for years, law enforcement officials are reporting an increase in heroin use across West Virginia, especially in the Eastern Panhandle.
So far this month police have charged six people in Berkeley and Jefferson Counties with the intent to sell the drug. Last month three others were arraigned in federal court in Martinsburg on charges they conspired to sell heroin.
“Heroin’s very dangerous, especially to a beginning user as far as you have different grades of heroin,” Kyle Williamson, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent, said.
Williamson runs an office that oversees Western Maryland and Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan Counties in West Virginia.
“Some heroin is more pure than other heroin. Heroin that’s been processed, that’s going to be snorted, if you inject it intravenously, you’ll die,” Williamson said.
And statistics from the state Bureau for Public Health show more people are dying with heroin in their system. In 2007 there were 21 deaths. That number increased to 37 in 2008.
Tom Light, WV Health Statistics Center spokesman, said estimates there could be up to 35 heroin-related deaths this year.
Light said Berkeley County led the state in deaths for the past eight years with Cabell County not far behind. Other counties seeing an increase in the number of heroin-related deaths are Jefferson, Kanawha, Monongalia and Hancock.
Officials we talked to say the spike in heroin use has affected younger people, in their teens and 20’s. Paul Camilletti, Assistant US Prosecutor for the Northern District of WV, said many of the deaths involve more than one drug.
“It seems that mixing heroin with Xanax, which a lot of these young folks do, that’s pretty dangerous. That’s a dangerous cocktail and it does seem to cause some pretty significant changes in your bodily metabolism, and you fall asleep and die,” Camilletti said.
The increase in deaths correlates with criminal activity Williamson has observed since taking over the DEA regional office four years ago. According to Williamson, heroin is being sold in the Eastern Panhandle and Western Maryland in open-air markets, where someone stands on a street corner selling the drug.
“And that was relatively limited to cocaine from 2005 all the way through the first part of 2009, but now we have a full-blown open-air heroin market,” Williamson said.
“We’re starting to see a trend maybe where they’re setting up what we call 'heroin mills' in hotel rooms and they’re actually milling the heroin, packaging it, cutting it up into single dosage unit quantities and selling it,” he said.
Williamson said heroin is brought to West Virginia from cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh. In the Eastern Panhandle it primarily comes from Baltimore, which has the reputation of being the heroin capital of the U.S.
“You’ve got people that go to Baltimore and they bring it in back via vehicle, distribute on the street, distribute in the form of capsules,” Williamson said. “Generally on the street, you’re running anywhere from $160 to $200 for a gram of heroin.”
Williamson said law enforcement has recently made significant arrests of dealers responsible for bringing lots of heroin into the area.
“That person will soon be replaced,” he said. “It’s just inevitable.”
For some, heroin is a substitute for cocaine which has become less pure and more expensive in the past year or so.
“Because of its purity and the small amount that’s taken by each user, it’s in effect cheaper, not on a gram per gram basis, but on a dose per dose, or hit per hit basis,” Camilletti said.
“Where we might be paying $50 or $100 per dose per crack cocaine, we’re paying $15 or $20 per dose for heroin.”
Williamson said heroin doesn’t carry the stigma it used to have because users no longer have to inject it to get high.
“And now because you can snort it, a more pure form that can be snorted, that’s more appealing to people who normally would be scared off by the needles,” Williamson said.
Heroin is also popular among people addicted to prescription drugs, a trend Ellen Valli sees. She’s the Program Director at the Martinsburg Institute, one of eight methadone clinics in West Virginia that treats narcotic addicts.
“We’ve got 18-year-olds knocking at the door who have been using narcotics for years, often starting with Oxycontin and prescriptions they’re getting out of their parents medicine cabinets or from physicians, who are writing huge amounts of narcotics, and then eventually having problems maintaining, getting the medication, finding themselves turning to heroin,” Valli said.
Since it only takes a small dose to get high on heroin, it’s hard to prosecute trafficking of the drug when dealers are caught because the penalties for carrying small amounts of drugs are fairly light.
“The federal sentencing guidelines are geared toward heavy weights of drugs and heroin just doesn’t traffic in heavy weights,” Camilletti said.
But Williamson said if a heroin dealer is connected with a death, the penalties are stiff.
“One thing in the Federal law that really helps us out with heroin and any other drug is a distribution that results in death,” Williamson said.
But it’s not easy to connect heroin deaths to the dealer. Many overdose deaths are not witnessed by anyone. And many times the person who dies has other substances in his bloodstream, so it’s hard to prove heroin actually caused the death.
Camilletti says the last time his office successfully prosecuted a case for distribution resulting in death was in 2005
By Cecelia Mason
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