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To Home Page. National Drug Intelligence Center
Virginia Drug Threat Assessment
March 2002



Map of Virginia.

Note: This map displays features mentioned in the report.

The Commonwealth of Virginia ranks twelfth in population with 7.1 million residents. Approximately one-half of the state's population is concentrated in three principal areas--Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, and Tidewater. (See Figure 4 in Other Dangerous Drugs section, Figure 1 in Cocaine section, and Figure 2 in Cocaine section.) These areas are ethnically diverse, making it possible for drug distributors to blend easily with the resident population. Southwestern Virginia is predominantly rural, making it ideal for cannabis cultivation.

Fast Facts
Population (2000) 7.1 million
U.S. population ranking 12th
Median household income (2000) $40,209
Unemployment rate (2001) 3.6%
Land area 39,598 square miles
Shoreline 3,315 miles
Capital Richmond 
Other principal cities Alexandria, Chesapeake, Hampton, Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Roanoke, Virginia Beach 
Number of counties 95 
Principal industries Service, trade, government, manufacturing, tourism, agriculture 

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The state has a well-developed transportation infrastructure, and its location makes Virginia ideal for the movement of licit and illicit goods into and through the state. Private and rental vehicles and commercial trucks are used frequently to transport drugs into and through Virginia. Couriers on airlines, commercial buses, and railcars are used to a lesser extent. Maritime drug smuggling directly into Virginia occurs infrequently.

Drug transporters primarily use Interstates 64, 66, 77, 81, 85, and 95 and U.S. Highway 13 to transport drugs into and through Virginia. Interstate 95, the principal north-south highway on the East Coast, connects Northern Virginia with Richmond. Interstate 81, which extends from upstate New York to eastern Tennessee, connects with Interstates 64 and 66 in Virginia, and passes through the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia. (See Figure 5 in Methamphetamine section, and Figure 3 in Marijuana section.) Interstate 77 extends from Columbia, South Carolina, through Charlotte, North Carolina, into southwestern Virginia, where it connects with I-81. Interstate 64 extends from the Tidewater area to St. Louis, Missouri, and I-66 connects Washington, D.C., with the Shenandoah Valley. Interstate 85 extends from Petersburg through Charlotte and Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama. US 13 is the principal north-south route along Virginia's Eastern Shore. Law enforcement officials in Virginia commonly seize drugs on interstate highways, often as part of Operation Pipeline initiatives.

Operation Pipeline

Operation Pipeline is a national highway interdiction program supported by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). It targets the highways and interstates most frequently used to transport illegal drugs and drug proceeds.

There are two large airports in Northern Virginia (Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National) and others in Newport News/Williamsburg, Norfolk, and Richmond. All but Ronald Reagan Washington National offer international service. Millions of passengers use these airports annually. Law enforcement officials report that drugs are not usually transported by airplane directly from foreign source countries into the state. However, Operation Jetway data indicate that drugs are transported into Virginia on airplanes from states such as California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

Operation Jetway

Operation Jetway is an EPIC-supported domestic interdiction program. It operates nationwide at airports, train stations, bus stations, package shipment facilities, U.S. Post Offices, and airport hotels/motels.

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Drugs also are transported into and through Virginia on trains. Passenger rail service from New York to Florida via eastern Virginia is offered daily. Recent Operation Jetway seizure data indicate that passenger rail service is used to transport drugs. Also, two major freight railroads based in Richmond and Norfolk have extensive networks throughout the United States, although no seizures are known to have been made recently.

Virginia's 3,315-mile shoreline, most of it along the Chesapeake Bay, includes a major seaport in Hampton Roads. The Port of Hampton Roads is located at the mouth of the James River near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. On the East Coast, it ranks second to the Port of New York/New Jersey in total trade volume and foreign trade tonnage. Container traffic through the port increased over 4 percent from approximately 1.25 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) in 1998 to more than 1.3 million TEUs in 1999. The Port of Hampton Roads is unique among major East Coast ports in its preponderance of exports over imports. Since less than 20 percent of the trade volume handled at the Port of Hampton Roads consists of imported goods--arriving primarily from Europe and Asia--the threat of drug smuggling through the port is relatively low. The U.S. Customs Service (USCS) did not report any significant seizures of drugs at the seaport in 2000. However, USCS inspectors at Norfolk International Terminal (within the Port of Hampton Roads) seized 24 kilograms of cocaine concealed in a containerized shipment of processed rice aboard the 777-foot German containership Heidelberg Express that arrived from Manzanillo, Panama, in August 1999.

Colombian and Dominican criminal groups based in New York City and Philadelphia and, to a lesser extent, Mexican criminal groups based in Atlanta and Charlotte transport wholesale quantities of cocaine into Virginia. Jamaican and Mexican criminal groups based in southwestern states and Virginia and Caucasian criminal groups based in Virginia transport marijuana produced in Mexico and southwestern states. Caucasian criminal groups and local independent dealers transport wholesale quantities of marijuana produced in Virginia and neighboring states. Dominican criminal groups based in New York City and Philadelphia and African American criminal groups based in Virginia transport wholesale quantities of South American heroin into the state. Various criminal groups transport ODDs to Virginia through parcel delivery and express mail services. Mexican criminal groups, some based in Virginia, transport wholesale quantities of methamphetamine produced in Mexico and southwestern states into Virginia. Outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) and local independent Caucasian dealers transport lesser amounts of methamphetamine into the state from California, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Treatment admissions for drug abuse in Virginia decreased in 1999 after increasing for a number of years. According to the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, the number of treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities for abuse of cocaine remained stable from 1995 through 1998. Treatment admissions for marijuana and heroin abuse increased yearly during this period. Treatment admissions for methamphetamine abuse fluctuated during this period.

Table 1. Primary Drug-Related Treatment Admissions to Publicly Funded Facilities, Virginia, 1995-1999

Year Cocaine Marijuana Heroin Methamphetamine
1995 11,893 5,912 2,737 105
1996 11,777 7,503 3,396 142
1997 11,743 7,947 4,045 102
1998 11,887 9,072 5,013 179
1999 11,363 9,334 4,609 192

Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.

The reported rate of drug abuse in Virginia is below the national rate. According to the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, approximately 4.5 percent of Virginia residents surveyed reported having abused an illicit drug in the past month compared with approximately 6.3 percent nationwide.

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In Virginia the percentage of federal sentences that were drug-related was higher than the national percentage, and the percentage of federal sentences that were crack-related was significantly higher than the national percentage. Drug-related sentences represented over 45 percent of all federal sentences in the state in fiscal year (FY) 2000 compared with 40 percent nationally. Over 51 percent of all drug-related federal sentences in the state were crack-related compared with 21 percent nationally.

Drug-related crimes are common in Virginia. Law enforcement officials in Virginia recorded 28,926 arrests for the sale or possession of illicit drugs in 1995 and 30,348 in 1998. However, drug-related arrests decreased to 25,577 in 1999 and 23,335 in 2000. Approximately one-quarter of all inmates entering incarceration under the Virginia Department of Corrections during 1998 had committed drug-related crimes. Fredericksburg, Hopewell, Petersburg, Richmond, and Emporia had the highest 3-year average drug-related arrest rates per 100,000 from 1996 through 1998, possibly because of their proximity to I-95.

Chart 1. Drug-Related Arrests, Virginia, 1995-2000

Bar chart showing number of drug-related arrests in Virginia for the years 1995-2000, broken down by year.


Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Criminal Justice Services, Criminal Justice Research Center, Crime in the Commonwealth; Department of State Police, Virginia Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Crime in Virginia.


Table 2. Areas With the Highest 3-Year Average Drug-Related Arrest Rates Per 100,000, Virginia, 1996-1998

City/County Arrests
Fredericksburg 1,514
Hopewell 1,331
Petersburg 1,313
Richmond 1,098
Emporia 1,082

Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Criminal Justice Services, Criminal Justice Research Center, Crime in the Commonwealth.

The financial impact on Virginia's government from substance abuse-related costs is significant. In 1998 Virginia spent nearly $1.8 billion--approximately $267 per resident--on substance abuse-related costs, almost 12 percent of the state's total expenditures and the fourteenth highest percentage in the nation.

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Virginia has implemented comprehensive legislation aimed at reducing drug abuse. In July 2000 Virginia's General Assembly approved the Substance Abuse Reduction Effort, also known as SABRE, an antidrug initiative proposed by the Office of the Governor. The $25 million legislation strengthens drug enforcement, treatment, and prevention programs in the state. Also, under Virginia Exile, a 1999 anticrime initiative, individuals can be sentenced to an additional 5 years' imprisonment for drug-related convictions involving possession of a firearm.

Substance Abuse Reduction Effort


Virginia now has tougher criminal penalties for drug dealers and chronic drug abusers, including a mandatory minimum 3-year incarceration for drug dealers transporting into the commonwealth 1 ounce or more of any Schedule I or II drug or 5 or more pounds of marijuana. There is a mandatory minimum 10-year incarceration for a subsequent conviction under this statute.

The state offers cash rewards for information on major drug dealers and those selling drugs to children. For example, the state may grant rewards of up to $10,000 to individuals providing information that leads to the arrest and conviction of individuals who possess or distribute large quantities of drugs, distribute drugs to children, or operate methamphetamine laboratories.

The state also established a Special Operations Division within the Virginia Department of State Police to provide a permanent force to assist localities in the eradication of illegal drugs and related crime problems.


Virginia now requires mandatory treatment for first-time drug offenders. Every first-time abuser must be tested periodically for drug use and treated based on the results of the screening.

The state requires that inmates participate in societal integration and treatment programs prior to release from prison.


Virginia established the Office for Substance Abuse Prevention to unify the commonwealth's substance abuse prevention efforts. The principal role of this office is to review all existing substance abuse prevention program spending by state agencies and make recommendations to the governor regarding the direction and appropriateness of those expenditures.

Source:, 11 December 2000.


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