Heroin is now claiming more lives than ever in West Virginia. Even the combined efforts of law enforcement and the courts can’t stop the carnage.
It’s an increasingly complex, multifaceted epidemic.
Drug dealers and cartels have long seen dollar signs in the Mountain State – recently growing the market by adding other more lethal drugs to the heroin supply.
After serving as the U.S. Attorney for West Virginia’s Northern District, William “Bill” Ihlenfeld II has learned plenty about heroin since taking office a little more than six years ago. He is leaving office on December 31 and returning to private practice.
In those early days, Ihlenfeld had never even heard of black tar heroin until Booth Goodwin, who was a federal prosecutor at the time, mentioned its impact on communities in the southern part of the state.
Right then, he knew what had to be done.
“From the beginning it was important to raise public awareness about heroin, to make people understand how serious a threat it was – and continues to be. I think we’ve done a good job in that area,” he said.
“Now it’s increasingly important to keep the citizenry up to speed about how the threat has evolved into an increasingly deadly one that includes synthetic opioids. It is much more than we have ever seen before, especially when it comes to fentanyl.”
Even the concept of a “bad batch,” when heroin was laced with something else that periodically resulted in increased overdoses and deaths, is evolving.
“It’s not what it used to be when we had heroin with a little bit of fentanyl thrown in, and people would say that was a bad batch,” he said.
Now addicts are “more commonly using more pure fentanyl,” and dealers are pressing it (along with some cutting agents) into a pill that’s marked and sold as something else.
Stronger opioids are also part of the emerging – and more deadly – street-drug culture.
“Today I would say a bad batch is something like carfentanil, the elephant tranquilizer that emerged in Huntington and Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as in parts of Indiana and Kentucky. People were taking that and immediately dropping to the ground because it is so much more potent than your run-of-the-mill fentanyl,” he said.
“In that situation, people are pretty much at the end unless someone is ready with Narcan to help save their life from an overdose,” he said.
Fentanyl is more than 50 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanil is nearly 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
Mexico is still a main source of the state’s heroin, but China is playing a bigger role.
Fentanyl is easily be purchased online from China.
“As long as you have an internet connection and a credit card, you can have it delivered to your home from there – no questions asked,” he said.
Cartel involvement is another issue because “they look at West Virginia as an environment that’s rich with customers, and a place where they can make a lot of money. They have identified us as a good place to do business.”
Gangs from places like Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore also look at the state “as a place where there’s not as much competition, and a little bit safer to operate because there is less likely to be gun play here than in the bigger cities.”
Even traffic stops can tell a tale.
“You’re not going to find large quantities in a car filled with just users. They are going to have small quantities and they are going to use those quantities pretty quickly,” he said.
“So if there are larger amounts being found in traffic stops than that’s a sign of a higher level person, and probably a greater likelihood that there are bigger organizations are starting to operate more frequently in West Virginia.”
Even though he’s leaving public office, Ihlenfeld plans to continue helping fight the state’s drug problems. He was appointed by Governor-elect Jim Justice to serve on an advisory committee looking at the state’s drug epidemic and is co-chairing the group.
The goal is to put together a “framework for a comprehensive, statewide response addressing the state’s drug problem.”
And he also has some advice for his successor.
“Make sure you talk to as many people as possible from the ground up so that you fully grasp this threat, and how it is continuing to change. Also, continue to take a comprehensive approach to the problem and not solely focus on enforcement. This office is in a unique position to do prevention work, too.”