Over the past several months, The Roanoke Times has appropriately run a number of articles and editorials regarding the prevalence of prescription and illegal drug abuse in Southwest Virginia. The most recent editorial (October 12, 2011, by Bobby McCall of Tazewell, “We need An Rx Against Drug Abuse”) stated, “We desperately need a new approach to fight the drug problem instead of the lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality of the past.”
Mr. McCall could not be more correct.
Abuse of both illegal and prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions in Southwest Virginia. The scale of abuse is reflected in horrifying statistics, all of which go in the wrong direction: mortality rates, mental health needs, binge drinking, tobacco use, car accidents, foster care calls and increased violent and property crimes. These trends have elevated the problem from simply a law enforcement issue to a grave matter of public health.
Those of us who work in law enforcement must conduct thorough investigations and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law. We agree with Mr. McCall that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. In addition to rigorous enforcement of our drug laws, we need more fulsome responses to the grip that substance abuse places on some citizens of the Western District of Virginia.
Like other United States Attorneys across the country, we are looking at progressive criminal justice solutions in the Western District of Virginia. We need to implement a three-legged stool in our response to criminal justice challenges: rigorous law enforcement, evidence-based prevention strategies and reentry programs for returning ex-offenders. We need the help of our law enforcement partners and the many community resources with which we work collaboratively to help reduce drug addiction.
Education, community involvement and flexibility are prevention solutions that are successful in the battle against illegal drug abuse. Here in Western Virginia, schools, churches, businesses, non-profit organizations and community groups are all working to combat the scourge of substance abuse. Several areas have obtained Drug Free Community designations from the federal government, which brings resources to survey and educate young people about the life-altering hazards drugs pose.
One Care, a consortium of coalitions dedicated to drug and alcohol abuse prevention, has published a strategic blueprint of recommendations to battle drug abuse through a market approach (www.onecare.org).
Community Service Boards provide addiction counseling and mental health resources in planning districts throughout Western Virginia.
We are also fortunate to have judges in the Western District who understand the need to focus on the root causes of addiction. Drug courts at the state level help substance abusing offenders get the resources they need to combat their addiction while also holding them accountable in a rigorous manner. Communities across Southwest Virginia will seek authorization from the General Assembly in 2012 for additional drug courts.
Federal courts in Abingdon and Roanoke have specialized “reentry” courts to work with ex-offenders whose previous criminal activity is directly linked to their addiction. One such court in Roanoke is designed specifically to meet the needs of addicted military veterans whose substance abuse has brought them into the criminal justice system.
Communities and neighborhoods across the district are also taking action to combat the threat of prescription drug abuse. On Saturday, October 29, the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with scores of community organizations, is sponsoring a Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Please log on to www.justice.gov/dea/ for a drop-off site in your neighborhood.
The United States Attorney’s Office is committed to doing all we can to implement the three legged stool approach in our struggling communities. We will continue working tirelessly to collaborate with our partners in an effort to reduce drug addiction and achieve true community safety.
Timothy J. Heaphy is United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia