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Press Release

Resilience in the face of adversity: West Virginia’s progress to loosen the grip of addiction

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of West Virginia
An editorial by United States Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld, II

West Virginia is in the path of a heroin and prescription painkiller-fueled storm that has wreaked havoc upon the state.  Drug dealers are flooding our communities with deadly substances and earning handsome profits in the process. As a result, overdose deaths from heroin have skyrocketed while the number of deaths caused by prescription pills remains very high.  Although the storm clouds are still lingering, efforts are underway to combat an epidemic that threatens our quality of life.

Painkiller abuse continues to be at the root of the problem.  West Virginia is third in the nation in the number of painkiller prescriptions written by doctors – annually there are 138 prescriptions written for every 100 West Virginians for drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet.  This is due in large part to improper prescribing practices.

Painkillers often serve as a gateway to heroin, which has become our most serious threat.  Heroin is a cheap, readily available alternative to painkillers.  Much of the heroin that we see in West Virginia comes from Mexico, where large amounts of the drug are produced each year.  As long as the drug cartels in Mexico continue to profit from the sale of heroin in the United States, large quantities will continue to be produced there and transported here.  Dealers sometimes mix fentanyl – a powerful painkiller - with heroin, creating what is often a lethal combination.

In addition to heroin, large quantities of methamphetamine from Mexico are making their way to West Virginia.  Mexican-made meth appears to be filling the void created by a decline in the production of methamphetamine here at home.

Fortunately, multi-jurisdictional drug task forces in West Virginia are aggressively pursuing criminal organizations that operate from afar, in places like Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.  The fact that the targets of our investigations are in distant cities requires us to coordinate with other agencies, to use sophisticated surveillance techniques, and to take a data-driven approach.  Sometimes the targets are medical practitioners, pharmacies, or deviant wholesale distributors. Accordingly, supply-side intervention and prescriber education will be a critical part of our ongoing strategy.

In addition to enforcement, we are attacking the problem from other angles.  We’ve partnered with talented people in the fields of prevention, treatment, community corrections, education, business, and the news media to create the United States Attorney’s Addiction Action Plan.  While much has been accomplished already through this effort, a great deal of work remains.  Whether it’s expanding access to effective treatment, enhancing the prevention curriculum in our schools, or getting Narcan into the hands of more first responders, we must act with a sense of urgency.

Although the drug epidemic in West Virginia is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a state, it is not insurmountable.  By taking a comprehensive, community-based approach, we can effectively combat the problem.  West Virginians will not run for cover in this storm but instead they will face it head-on and emerge stronger, safer, and healthier.


Updated January 8, 2016

Drug Trafficking