HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Authorities involved in efforts to crack down on illegal sales of prescription pills in West Virginia said Thursday they are seeing an alarming increase in heroin trafficking as users seek out less expensive drugs.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said that while prescription drugs represent the biggest crime problem in West Virginia's southern district, heroin seizures by drug task forces have increased more than fourfold from 2011 to 2012.
Scott Masumoto of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration cited state health statistics that more than 152,000 West Virginians have an addiction to prescription medication — more than 8 percent of the population. But Masumoto said the price of these pills can be $80 or more apiece, making it difficult for teenagers to sustain their addictions, so they are moving to "cheaper" alternatives such as heroin.
Goodwin said what is especially striking is the potential for overdoses among new heroin users.
Last month in Parkersburg alone, police reported five heroin overdoses in less than two weeks. One of the users died.
"These nontraditional drug users aren't used to it," Goodwin said. "And even if they get used to it, they're one potent batch away from overdosing. The potency of heroin is not consistent. It's dependent on how much it's 'stepped on' and how much it's cut in the supply chain from Mexico here to southern West Virginia."
Goodwin and Masumoto were among numerous state, federal and local officials who provided updates on efforts to fight prescription drug abuse at meetings in Huntington and Charleston.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia has the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation.
Goodwin said an entire unit within his office is devoted almost exclusively to fighting prescription drug abuse. He said over the past two years, his office prosecuted more than 200 pill dealers.
As part of a crackdown on pill mills and doctor shopping, a new state law limits the amount of pain drugs a doctor or clinic can dispense; speeds up the tracking of prescriptions through a statewide database; and increases oversight of pain management clinics as well as methadone treatment centers. It also tightens the purchase limits on cold remedies that can be used to make methamphetamine.
To help reduce the demand for illegal prescription drugs sales, West Virginia State Police Capt. Tim Bradley said law enforcement must get the word out to communities.
"It has to start with grade-school kids. There has not been a negative or dirty stigma with prescription drugs because it's in all of our families," he said. "Until we get that ingrained and educated into our kids ... we need to focus on the education of our youngsters."
Other speakers urged expanding training for health professionals and creating long-term care facilities with thousands of beds for drug addicts. They also urged continued federal funding for the cleanup of illegal methamphetamine operations, expanding access to the powerful drug naloxone that can stop the effects of drug overdoses, and using cost-effective treatments for drug-addicted infants.
Among those attending the seminars in Charleston and Huntington were U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., and White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske. Kerlikowske attended a similar meeting in Charleston in February 2011.
"Four years ago, the prescription drug issue wasn't really on the radar screen," he said. "I think the example of the progress that I see is this opportunity to come to West Virginia and see collaborations, partnerships and the leveraging of resources in a way that I think is unique. I think other states could take something away from this type of collaboration as they deal with this."