By Sarah Mansheim
Last week, elected officials across the state spoke out against the approval of OxyContin for children 11 and up by the FDA, deriding the decision as being irresponsible in light of rampant prescription drug abuse across the state. But, according to Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill, heroin use has taken over prescription opiate abuse as the drug of choice on the local front.
Cahill acknowledged that drug use and arrests tend to be cyclical, with meth lab busts down this year and heroin busts up, and he said that heroin use is definitely on the rise in Greenbrier County. What has happened, he said, is that prescription pill addicts are finding that heroin is cheaper than pills, and also, doctors are not prescribing opiates as freely as they did in the past.
“As opiates get more difficult to come by, heroin takes the front seat. It’s a drug that you think of as being from the 1970s and 80s, but it’s back with a vengeance,” he said. As heroin use increases, so do overdoses. According to a national report, West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States.
Heroin overdoses can occur for myriad reasons, said Cahill, but he noted that heroin is a drug that has a history of being laced with other products, so users have no idea what they are really ingesting. Another issue with heroin is that it is incredibly addictive, so people are not able to use the drug casually the way they might use alcohol or other illegal, but less addictive, drugs. Once you start using heroin, it’s nearly impossible to stop, and due to the common method of delivery – injection – accidental overdoses are a risk users take every time they shoot up. Prescription opiates are equally addictive, and addicts often graduate to injecting them, too.
“You just have to get the message out there that you’re just hooked after one dose. When it comes to prescription opiates and heroin, it does not discriminate. It stretches across all socioeconomic factors.
“If someone really combs the obituaries carefully, they’d see there’s a scary amount of people dying from overdoses,” Cahill said. “You look in the obituaries all over the state, and when someone under 40 dies, three out of four times it’s an O.D.”
Along with the local state police department, the sheriff’s department is part of the Greenbrier County Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, and is actively targeting heroin dealers in the area. In the last year, Cahill said 25 heroin indictments have been handed up to federal court out of Greenbrier County.
The appeal of a federal conviction is that the federal system often carries stiffer penalties than state charges.
“Where a state court could sentence a dealer to one year in prison, you’re looking at six, eight, 10 years federally,” he said. The task force busts dealers who are “big on the local stage,” he said, and also often contribute to larger, multi-state drug trafficking investigations.
“Almost everyone we deal with is well-known as a distribution source,” said Cahill of the task force.
Cahill did not share the same level of horror as some of the more media-savvy politicians regarding the FDA’s approval of OxyContin for children. He said that doctors are more conservative than ever when prescribing opiate painkillers, and he acknowledged that opiates are appropriate for treating the type of pain management that those narcotics are intended for: post-surgery, cancer and extensive trauma.
He said that he recently sprained an ankle, and was pleasantly surprised when his doctor prescribed him a prescription-strength Tylenol instead of a prescription opiate, and he said that’s where the trend seems to be headed in medical offices across the state.
But, for addicts, the difficulty in getting opiates may lead them to buy heroin on the street instead, so Cahill and the task force continues to work to get the dealers off the streets, thereby lessening opportunities for area addicts to score. But, he acknowledged that there are limits to what law enforcement and doctors can do to eradicate drug abuse.
“You’re not ever going to eliminate it,” he said. “But, you’re going to try to contain it.”