By Polina Noskova
Last year, 728 Virginians died from drug overdoses, more than died on the highways.
In Rockbridge County, the jail is overcrowded to the point where inmates are transported to other locations. The jail was built in the 1980s to last until the 2030s.
“When those plans were done, meth wasn’t around,” Sheriff Chris Blalock said.
Drug deaths in Rockbridge County mostly coincide with the times that a new drug is introduced, like meth or bath salts, Blalock said.
“I think it just shows a need for more treatment plans and new ideas as to how we can break the addiction.”
Nationally, drug use is an increasing problem. On Wednesday, President Obama addressed the issue with a panel discussion in Charleston, W.Va. Meanwhile in Washington D.C., more than 130 law enforcement officials unveiled a four-pronged plan to reduce the mass incarceration they say is largely a result of the War on Drugs since the 1980s.
Drug use in Rockbridge made news with a drug roundup Sept. 30 targeting 79 people on 231 drug-related charges, resulting in the arrest of 56 people.
Most of the indictments from the roundup involved dealing, and in most of those cases people were dealing just enough drugs to support their habit.
Blalock said that the “true” drug dealers that county authorities would like to take off the street are most often not local and don’t have a drug habit themselves, but are exploiting local addicts to make money.
For example, Blalock said that recently the county has been dealing with heroin use, which it hasn’t seen in years. When the sheriff’s department found the sources of the heroin and they were arrested outside of Virginia, the local heroin supply dried up.
“The problem is, if the money’s there and the business is there someone will step into their place and take over. So what we’d like to do as well is to help folks get off the drugs and to kick the addiction that they have,” Blalock said.
“How exactly to break that cycle of addiction, I don’t know.”
Drug roundups continue
In the meantime, the Regional Drug Task Force continues its regular sweeps, arresting the repeat drug offenders to deter other would-be offenders in the county.
An inmate at the Rockbridge County Jail who is incarcerated for drug-related charges said that he feels as if the authorities were trying to “hit” him with anything that they could. This inmate asked to remain anonymous so as not to implicate himself in an ongoing investigation.
“There’s a big target on my back since my last charges,” he said.
The man was served with an indictment for the roundup while already in jail for violating terms of his parole.
Blalock explained that if they didn’t incarcerate small-time dealers to serve as a deterrent, then you would see “open-air markets.”
The drug task force was started in the early 1990s, when that was the situation in the county. That’s when the sheriff’s office and the Lexington police department decided to join forces.
Blalock said the task force has been successful over the years, “sometimes more successful than others.” It was reformed in 2012 to include the state police.
Blalock said some of the success in the last roundup was due to the communication between Lexington and Rockbridge County patrol officers and the task force.
However the roundups are a strain on the court system, jail and other resources.
“But I think it’s important that we do these from time to time, to show that we’re actively working – as a deterrent. But also to show the community, so that the community is aware there is a drug issue,” Blalock said.
The interviewed inmate said that the vacuum that is created by incarcerating low-level drug dealers is more powerful than the deterrent of incarceration.
“Every time they arrest somebody, 10 more pop up,” he said.
Candidates debate drug courts
Drug use in Rockbridge County and the cycle of arresting drug-users has been a central issue in the local elections this cycle.
In their Oct. 7 debate at Washington and Lee University, the two candidates running for Commonwealth’s Attorney debated whether creating a local drug court would be worth the cost to taxpayers.
Josh Elrod encouraged the use of drug courts as an alternative to traditional prosecution of drug offenders. He said drug courts were becoming increasingly popular nationally.
Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias acknowledged the benefit of drug courts, but said that they might not be economical for our area. He said there are not enough offenders in Rockbridge County to justify the cost.
At a candidates’ forum Wednesday, Oct. 21, Sheriff Blalock and his challenger, Brian Rowsey, also discussed drug use in the county.
Rowsey said that 80 percent of teenagers use drugs such as marijuana, citing his experience coaching sports and his experience with young people in the area. He said that lack of recreational facilities left teenagers with nothing to do but engaging in drug use and sexual activity.
Blalock responded: “We don’t choose the law that we enforce.”
He added that while gyms and other recreational facilities would be a benefit to the community, it’s ultimately up to families to raise their kids.
He said that he hopes the roundup can spark a conversation, like the one about drug courts, to reduce the use of drugs.
Investigator Lt. Tony McFaddin says drug use often escalates into other crimes, like stealing or selling drugs, so you deal with drugs in the county on many different levels.
The sheriff’s department commonly catches drug offenders by infiltrating their “food chain,” which often means using informants.
McFaddin said that in a bigger city with more funding, you could have undercover narcotic officers.
“Here for the most part everybody is from here and was raised here, grew up here, lives here – there’s not many places we can go within the community without somebody knowing who we are,” McFaddin said.
There are different types of informants. Some do it because they’re tired of seeing drugs in the community, while others do it because they’ve been caught, McFadden said. Some are paid.
“We have to use informants. If we didn’t have those, it would be almost impossible to do a drug buy, and then more people would be getting away with it,” McFaddin said.
Using informants can also act as a deterrent because it makes drug dealers unsure about whom they’re selling to, especially after the recent drug sweep, he said.
“Our job is to stop it. We want to disrupt the flow of drugs into this community and there’s hundreds of ways of doing that. But our job is not to punish them. Our job is to stop it,” McFaddin said.
Trying to break the cycle
The Rockbridge Area Prevention Coalition, a part of the Rockbridge Area Care Services, is a program aimed at educating local youth about the dangers of drug use.
The coalition put on a program in August educating families about drug paraphernalia that can be “hidden in plain sight.” On Monday, Oct. 19, it also sponsored a nationally known speaker, Adolph Brown, for Rockbridge County High School and certain grades of all the local middle schools.
Besides this, McFaddin and Blalock both say that there are not a lot of programs focused on prevention in the county.
Treatment and rehabilitation facilities are also limited, especially for people without insurance and the money to pay for it, McFaddin said.
Blalock said that although there are success stories of people going to treatment facilities and getting clean, most of the situations he sees are people who choose between jail and a treatment facility with little hope of breaking the cycle.
“They see the treatment center as an easier option than jail. But I’m not sure their heart’s in it.”
Blalock said most of the success stories he can think of involve people who have either committed themselves or they initiate the treatment programs.
“As far as the sheriff’s office is concerned – how we deal with these issues is through arrest. And we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. And we can’t just keep incarcerating the drug addicts.
“Statistics show we’re incarcerating more and more folks, and drug use continues to climb.”