The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 30, 2013

TOP FIVE STORIES OF 2013 — No. 2: Efforts to overcome region’s drug problems continue

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

— When the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Dec. 23, 2013, that agents would investigate pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia, the effort was the latest battle in a war against drugs that police, lawmakers and educators continued to fight throughout 2013.

As 2013 opened, drugs and theft dominated grand jury indictments in Raleigh County, with 20 percent of 75 indictments on Jan. 22 involving drug-related offenses.

In February, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., reintroduced the Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, sponsored by Rep. Nick Rahall III, D-W.Va., in an effort to reduce deaths and prevent the unsafe use of prescription drugs. The bill sought to form a uniform reporting system for painkiller deaths and to increase federal funding to help states create and maintain prescription drug monitoring programs to stop “doctor shopping” and drug trafficking across state lines.

The bill was referred to a congressional committee in April 2013.

Both Wyoming and Raleigh counties joined 17 other West Virginia counties in being designated part of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) in 2013.

Wyoming was named to HIDTA in November, and in December, Raleigh followed.

The designation opened an avenue for federal funding to flow into the two counties in order to combat drug trafficking.

“The added federal muscle that this new HIDTA designation brings to Wyoming County, and which I pressed hard to secure, will help our state and local law enforcement authorities in their tireless fight against drug abuse,” Rahall said in November.

He said the crime that accompanies drug trafficking and abuse requires a coordinated response across all levels of government.

“I am working hard to ensure our state’s law enforcement officials have access to the resources and training and information that they need to help them protect our communities.”

The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) visited southern West Virginia in 2013 at Rahall’s request to learn more about the drug abuse and trafficking problems in the region. Rahall advocated for the expansion of the Appalachia HIDTA to bring more resources into the state.

In another positive move, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., finally succeeded in having the FDA recommend the rescheduling of hydrocodone combination drugs from Schedule III to Schedule II controlled substance.

“Rescheduling hydrocodone from a Schedule III to a Schedule II drug will help prevent these highly addictive drugs from getting into the wrong hands and devastating families and communities,” Manchin said.

Highly addictive, hydrocodone is found in drugs like Vicodin and Lortab.

Prescription pills were the most-abused drug of 2013, but heroin was closely following and is expected to overtake prescription drug abuse within the next few years, state and local police agencies reported in 2013.

Methamphetamine abuse was high throughout southern West Virginia. State legislators passed a law limiting the amount of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or phenylpropanolamine that can be purchased without a prescription.

Sen. Greg Tucker, D-W.Va., announced in September that to combat illegal meth production, he plans to introduce a bill during the upcoming session of the State Legislature to require a prescription for any drugs that can be used to manufacture meth.

Pseudoephedrine drugs like Sudafed are used by lawbreakers to manufacture methamphetamine.

Rite Aid stores stopped selling pseudoephedrine-only pills in West Virginia in November.

Several large-scale drug sweeps were held across the region in 2013.

In September, West Virginia State Police and Hinton Police Department officers arrested 52 local citizens on more than 170 counts of charges related to drug abuse.

In mid-October, Beckley Police Department, West Virginia State Police troopers, Raleigh Sheriff’s deputies and U.S. Marshals followed suit with a citywide effort that led to 23 of 56 drug warrants being served on suspects.

Officers themselves weren’t immune to being charged with drug abuse. In August, Federal Correctional Institution officer James Butcher and his girlfriend were arrested for allegedly bringing pills from Clay County to sell in Fayetteville.

Officers uncovered a large amount of Roxycodone pills in Butcher’s residence, Fayette Sheriff Steve Kessler reported.