As law enforcement officials are increasingly turning their attention to the growing problem with heroin in West Virginia, many of them have strong opinions on the legislation that provides greater access to Naloxone, an opioid antagonist that combats the effects of an overdose. That bill, which goes into effect Wednesday, will allow police officers to carry the medicine. But some law enforcement officials believe that increased access enables heroin users.
Kenny Lemaster is the sheriff of Berkeley County. We’re parked in a small parking lot across the street from a bar on the outskirts of Martinsburg. In the bar’s parking lot there’s a group of three young men wearing hoodies and jeans. They’re standing in a circle beside an old, rusting car. The sheriff pulls out his binoculars to get a closer look at what the men are doing. This small group could be totally innocent, but Sheriff Lemaster is suspicious. He says this scene could easily turn into an arrest for dealing heroin.
Lemaster didn’t end up making any arrests, but he says he doesn’t take any chances when it comes to certain areas in Martinsburg.
“It’s just another way to say it’s okay to use drugs, cause we’re going to treat you if you do. We’re going to help you if you are using drugs. It’s kind of like giving the nod saying, yeah it’s alright, we’ll take care of you. I believe in saving people’s lives, but at what expense do you keep giving in and allowing people to break the law to use such things?”
- Berkeley County Sheriff Kenny Lemaster on Naloxone; the opioid antagonist.
Heroin trafficking in Berkeley County, specifically in areas of Martinsburg, has started to increase in the past ten years. As more and more businesses and families moved to the ever-growing region, so did heroin.
“I think it’s everywhere," Lemaster noted, "It’s just more prevalent here, because of our location as far as DC and Baltimore, I mean I think Washington County, Frederick County, they have about the same thing with the same problems, or similar problems, it’s just that maybe those aren’t quite as bad. You know per capita, we probably have less police officers that are working on the issues compared to maybe those jurisdictions.”
To combat the growing heroin problem, Lemaster’s department has teamed with the State Police, Martinsburg Police Department and others to form the Eastern Panhandle drug task force. The sheriff says the size of the task force is a problem, though. Just 12 officers in the Eastern Panhandle have been given the special assignment.
U.S. Prosecuting Attorney William Ihlenfeld, from the Northern District of West Virginia, says heroin use in Berkeley County is the second highest in the state, right after Cabell County.
Both Ihlenfeld and Sheriff Lemaster say the heroin coming into the county almost exclusively comes from Baltimore, which Ihlenfeld believes could be the heroin capitol of the country.
“We have people from West Virginia who drive to Baltimore every single day - or to the outskirts of Baltimore every single day. And the reason why is because it’s cheaper to buy it in Baltimore than it is to buy it in West Virginia," Ihlenfeld explained, "And so the user wants to go to a bigger city like Baltimore or Pittsburgh. They’re only gonna drive so far, but they will drive long distances, they will drive hours in the car, and they’ll travel to a bigger city cause they can get more for their money.”
Because it’s close to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and D.C., Ihlenfeld says Berkeley County is perfectly positioned for both addicts looking for cheap drugs and dealers looking for new customers.
But the same can be said for many areas of the state. Huntington in Cabell County is dealing with the same issues.
“We have become a distribution center here," said Jim Johnson, the Director of the Huntington Mayor's Office of Drug Control Policy, "You know, as you follow heroin if it comes Mexico to Phoenix to Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Columbus, Huntington. We’ve become a distribution center and that’s why we say if we move drug dealers off of First Street in Huntington and they move to First Street in Kenova or Barboursville, we’ve still got the same problem.”
Johnson says Huntington has made great strides over the past few years in combating the flow of drugs into the area by working, much like they do in Berkeley County, with other law enforcement agencies as drug task forces.
High drug traffic comes with being a transient city, Martinsburg Mayor George Karos says. He believes movement through the county helps boost the local economy, but he says it helps boost the illegal drug activity as well.
“Back in the late 70s or early 80s, we had a fantastic drug problem here," Karos explained, "Federal helicopters came in early in the morning, federal prosecutors were here, local DEA teams were here, the drug task force were here. They made several, several arrests early in the morning, took them to federal court, they were in prison, and it cleared up for a while. And I’m sure it’s going to happen with the heroin problem. It’ll get cleared up, but it’ll be a lapse, there’ll be a period there everything will be quiet, but it’ll come back again. It seems like it just moves from one area to another area or from one community to another community.”
Karos believes the opioid antagonist bill approved by lawmakers this legislative session is the answer to many of Martinsburg’s drug trafficking issues.
The bill gives not just emergency responders, but also friends and family members of addicts access to a drug called Naloxone. Administered either through a shot or a nasal spray, the drug reverses the symptoms of an overdose, saving lives.
But Sheriff Lemaster is skeptical access to the medication will make a difference to the amount of drugs being brought across the state line.
Still, Mayor Karos is optimistic the drug problem in Berkeley County will clear up. After all, cities like Huntington are starting to make some progress. But he also says, the drugs will never fully go away, just be controlled.