What Are The Solutions To Solving The State's Heroin Problem?


There were few heroin deaths in West Virginia in 2001. That’s about the time  William Ihlenfeld started working as a prosecutor in the state’s legal system. He’s now the federal district attorney for the northern district.

Ihlenfeld’s seen the distribution of heroin increase during those years, and he’s fighting a war so to speak, against those who are bringing it here. He says there are established pipelines from Mexico that bring heroin to places like Baltimore or Chicago, where it eventually makes its way to  northern West Virginia.

“They can sell a stamp bag, that’s how we typically see it sold in West Virginia, they can sell a stamp bag for a lot more in northern West Virginia than they can on the streets in Chicago, or Cleveland. They put that in our marketing plan, and they are very good at what they do. That’s what we are up against,” he said.

A stamp bag is a small quantity of heroin, about the size of a postage stamp that a user will use to get high and essentially taste the goods of what’s being sold. Ihlenfeld says heroin users will buy either one stamp, or a batch of them, or even a brick, which is a much larger quantity of heroin. When asked why the state seems to be dealing with more heroin deaths than ever before, Ihlenfeld points to a few basic facts.

“We are seizing more heroin. We are seeing more of it being available on the street. I think another reason why we are seeing so many deaths is because of what it is being cut with. What is being combined with the heroin by the person who is selling it. It’s so unpredictable,” he said.

But his office is also seeing higher purity levels of heroin on the street. That means there’s more of it out there that isn’t mixed with anything, which affects a user who’s not used to taking in that much pure heroin. And Ihlenfeld says due to the fact that heroin is coming from other parts of not only the country, but the world, that creates very tough challenges.

“A lot of it is originating in another country so we have to work with not only our partners in the region, but our law enforcement partners in Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and Michigan. We need to tackle it from a regional angle,” said Ihlenfeld.

Our drug task forces in the northern district of West Virginia have changed our priorities and we’ve moved heroin to the top of our list.”

Ihelnfeld says his office and other law enforcement agencies are also doing a better job at educating the public about the threats.

But Ihlenfeld says combating heroin involves more than just enforcing the law. He points out West Virginia needs more treatment facilities where addicts can get treatment.

“We have a tremendous demand for this substance. Even people who may very well want to stop using it, they simply can’t and they don’t have anywhere to go,” he said.

“It’s really a legislative issue, and I can only hope the state legislature will continue to look at this problem, so people who are addicted can go, and get to the point where they can function without using heroin.”

According to the state’s Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, there are 13 comprehensive behavioral health centers which provide assessment, outpatient services, medication management, and detoxification services.

Dr. Carl Sullivan, Director of Addiction Programs, at West Virginia University, acknowledges the state needs more resources for people fighting addictions. He says some help is available now, though.

“We may want to detoxify them and get them into therapy. 12 step therapy has worked, so there are talk therapies that will help if there hasn’t been a long history,” Dr. Sullivan said.

“If there’s been a history of using that’s gone on for years, often times these people will need medication, and talk therapy.”

Dr. Sullivan says many addicts want to quit, but due to the pleasure they get from the drug, it’s very difficult for them to commit to stopping.

Sullivan says heroin addiction is difficult to fight because it’s a disease of the brain- when addicts take the drug it triggers pleasure in the reward center of the brain. Over time it takes more and more heroin to create a sense of happiness, forcing the addict to need more of the drug and making it harder to quit.

There’s a specific message Sullivan he wants to send to those who may be afraid to take the first step towards recovery.

“If you have a loved one or if you yourself are dependent, I would suggest you utter these three words, “I need help.” These people can get help. Many people are addicted really believe they are hopeless, and think they can’t get better. The reality is they can.”