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Special Assignment: The heroin problem in Ohio and West Virginia

Updated: Wednesday, February 26 2014, 06:38 PM EST


Since 1999, the rate of fatal overdoses has risen dramatically in West Virginia. During that same time, numbers in Ohio also picked up.

The common thread in the overdoses is heroin. But where are the drugs coming from? News9 asked that question to local officials.

The trouble with solving it lies in finding the source, they say.

“What we’re seeing now is a shift,” U.S. Northern District Attorney Bill Ihlenfield said. “We’re seeing a shift from prescription pain killer use and abuse to heroin use and abuse.”

Ohio Special Assistant United States Attorney Jane Hanlin agreed.

“When you interview people who have been arrested for possession of heroin, or caught using heroin, the common story is they started by using and abusing prescription pills,” she said.

But where is it coming from?

While both sides of the river, Ohio and West Virginia, share a common theme in the problem -- people continuously falling victim to the drug’s deadly grasp.

The difference is the source.

“We see a lot of heroin in this market coming from the Pittsburgh market,” Ihlenfield said. “We also see a lot of heroin in northern West Virginia coming from the Baltimore region. Baltimore, according to some experts, is the heroin capital of the United States.”

Steubenville’s primary source is said to be Chicago, but once the heroin is here, it serves as a hub for the area.

“I don’t know that West Virginia has the same number of drug traffickers unfortunately as Ohio does in some of the urban areas,” Hanlin said. “They certainly have an enormous problem in terms of the number of addicts and those individuals come to Ohio, purchase heroin and then they go back to the communities where they live and I’m sure (take) those same criminal activities back to the places where they live.”

The association with crime and heroin is in direct correlation. Tracking where the drugs come from is just half the battle. Rounding up the dealers takes an abundance of time, resources and cooperation.

In December, local drug task force members arrested 14 people in a heroin conspiracy, but it barely made a dent.

“They were providing heroin to the people in this community not just on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis,” Hanlin said. “And they were providing an enormous amount of heroin to this area.”

In February, a lethal blend of heroin -- marketed as “Theraflu” and “Bud Ice” -- was responsible for a lethal rash of overdose deaths in Pittsburgh.

Ihlenfield says he’s already seeing a trickle-down effect.

“That batch was believed to be originated in the New York City area and made its way down to Pittsburgh, and now it’s making its way into Northern West Virginia as well.

Ihlenfield says one of the main reasons for the heroin creeping down from Pittsburgh market is simple economics.


“They see northern West Virginia as an opportunity to come down and have less competition, to be the only game in town or have fewer people who are competing with them and selling the drug so they can sell it for a little bit more than on the streets of Pittsburgh,” he said, “And that’s why they like to come down here.”

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 38,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2010.

Ohio held an overdose rate of 16.1 deaths per 100,000, while West Virginia led the nation with 28.9 deaths per 100,00.

“I’d like to think that it’s a trend, and that the trend will eventually die down and go away,” Ihlenfield said. “Heroin was a trend a couple of decades ago and then it faded away for whatever reason. I’m not sure. I’m hoping that the same thing is going to happen here.”

Hanlin said: “We are investigating that as actively and as soon as we possibly can because the minute that they land here we want to be able to have them arrested and immediately removed from our area.”

Ihlenfield added that they must use a multi-pronged approach in tackling the problem: Being aggressive in going after suppliers, educating young people and finding new treatment options for those addicted to heroin.


Special Assignment: The heroin problem in Ohio and West Virginia

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