MARTINSBURG - U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has taken what she considers an "important first step" towards further addressing the nation and state's growing illegal drug problem - especially increasing heroin addiction and related overdose deaths.
On Thursday, Capito joined with Sen, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and introduced bipartisan legislation seeking to help combat heroin and methamphetamine trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Known as "The Stop Drugs at the Border Act of 2015," Capito said it "aims to address increased drug trafficking, as seizures along the Southwest border and heroin deaths are on the rise."
The West Virginia Community Anti-Drug Coalition, shown above, is one of numerous organizations working to combat the state’s growing substance abuse problem.
No stranger to these problems, Capito said she'd recently met with state law enforcement representatives and citizens in Washington, D.C.
"It's a small world and getting smaller, especially when you're talking about transporting and moving illegal drugs. I think that's something we can all agree upon," Capito said in a telephone interview.
Although much of the heroin comes from poppies in Afghanistan, experts now agree that at least half of the heroin coming into the United States is making its way through the Mexican border, she said.
"In order to curb drug abuse at home in West Virginia, we need to ensure our national drug policy reflects the increase of drugs crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. We also need to equip our drug and law enforcement officers with the resources they need to fight back against this epidemic," Capito said.
"After meeting with a number of law enforcement officers and anti-drug coalitions this week, I am optimistic that this legislation is a good step in the right direction toward tackling West Virginia's drug crisis."
The legislation would require the Office of National Drug Control Policy to ensure that its Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy specifically responds to the recent increase in heroin and methamphetamine trafficking along the international border between the U.S. and Mexico, she said.
It would also require U.S. Customs and Border Protection to submit a report to Congress within four months of the bill's enactment detailing the resources - including new technology, equipment, personnel, or other resources - needed for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other law enforcement to respond to increased heroin and methamphetamine trafficking along the border, Capito said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Seizures of heroin and methamphetamine by border patrol agents along the Southwest border are increasing, according to the United States Border Patrol. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, the number of heroin seizures at the U.S. Southwest border increased from 85 to 145, a 71 percent increase, and the number of methamphetamine seizures grew from 437 to 724, a 66 percent increase. The volume of heroin confiscated increased by nearly 50 percent and the volume of methamphetamine increased by 105 percent.
Heroin overdose deaths have continued to rise across the country, as well. According to the Center for Disease Control, U.S. deaths linked to heroin overdoses increased from 5,925 to 8,257, a jump of 39 percent, between 2012 and 2013.
A BROAD VISION
The illicit drug market has changed significantly since the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area was designated in 1998, said deputy director Kenny Burner, whose coverage area includes counties in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
That's because at the time marijuana was the primary concern, although other illegal drugs - including a more recent increase in heroin use and addiction - have since taken a higher profile, he said.
But one thing hasn't changed - the public's seemingly insatiable taste for these drugs, Burner said.
"I think someone estimated that of all the pain medications manufactured in the world, over 90 percent of them end up in the United States," he said.
Drug trafficking is "all about economics in its purest sense, because when there is this kind of demand, there will also be a supply, especially since it is so profitable," Burner said in a telephone interview from Huntington.
Burner said that can be seen at all levels, from international drug trafficking down to sales on local streets.
Berkeley County is also part of the HIDTA program (grouped with Washington and Baltimore), which Congress created in 1988 to aid federal, state and local law enforcement in communities deemed to be critical drug-trafficking areas. It became a HIDTA designee in September 2014, joining other West Virginia counties, including Harrison County (which also became a participant at the same time last fall).
"This designation is significant because one of the premises is that this area must have also have an impact on the rest of the United States. About 2002 we transitioned from marijuana to other drugs, and are now looking at opioid addiction - including heroin, which became a cheaper alternative when we started cracking down on the pill mills in Florida," he said.
Heroin is now considered to be a "Mexican issue" since so much of it is coming to the United States from south of the border, Burner said.
"Most of the drugs coming into our country, including meth, cocaine and now heroin, come through Mexico because of the long-established smuggling routes there. It is a problem, because it is a very long border," he said.
"These drugs are a big threat to our country, and it is not just a criminal justice problem anymore because it is also a public health issue now. We are going to have to deal with it from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint, and find a way to reduce the supply of drugs," Burner said.
HEROIN (AND OVERDOSES) TRICKLE DOWN
Berkeley County Sheriff Kenny Lemaster, who was also in Washington and supports this new federal initiative, agreed that even the local drug landscape continues to change - and not necessarily for the better.
During his visit on behalf of the Regional Organized Crime Information Center, Lemaster said he was not only talking about the need for more information sharing, but also gave Capito an update on the local drug situation.
"The good news is that we are working together cooperatively, and also have support from the federal level including the U.S. Attorney's Office and HIDTA. So this means there are more resources on the street," he said.
"But the heroin overdose cases are almost intimidating with how many we have, and that number is constantly going up," Lemaster said.
While it's difficult to know exactly how much is coming through Mexico, Lemaster credited Capito for addressing this international problem.
"Especially at that level, we can't keep doing the same old thing - and we can see why right here in Berkeley County," Lemaster said.