Heroin in Rockbridge County

by Lindsay Cates

Rockbridge County is not immune to the growing heroin epidemic. Eleven people have died from opioid overdoses since 2007, and one person died from heroin in 2015.  Although deaths related to the drug are still infrequent, police say cases of heroin sale and possession are rising.

In October the Rockbridge Regional Drug Task Force arrested Justin Craig for possession of a controlled substance after informants made four purchases of heroin from him. Craig was living on Randolph Street, and a search warrant of his home later found 42 bricks of heroin in his residence, said Greg Gardner, detective with the Lexington Police Department and a member of the drug task force. That amounts to about 2,000 bags, or $50,000 worth of the illegal drug. Craig is scheduled to go to trial in Rockbridge Circuit Court in June.

In the past year local police say they have probably seen a 150 percent increase in heroin use in Rockbridge County. Gardner estimates that heroin makes up five percent of the drug cases in the county, along with marijuana, cocaine and pharmaceutical drugs. Methamphetamine, he said, makes up about 80 percent.

The task force said heroin is mostly coming into the county from Pennsylvania, but it also flows up from Roanoke. “It’s tough because if there’s a market for it, they will find a way to get it here,” said Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney Christopher Billias.

heroin's path to rockbridgeIt is hard to put a number on the exact amount of heroin cases, Gardner said, because petty crime is often closely related to drug use; addicts need money to fund their addiction. When those crimes increase, it is a sign that drug use is also on the rise.

Located at the intersection of Interstates 81 and 64, Rockbridge County is at a crossroads for dealers coming from every direction. Some dealers simply pass through, but drugs flow into the county mostly because of proximity, said Billias.

Billias said Augusta County, just north of Rockbridge, is practically a “drug pit-stop.” Augusta County and Staunton have seen a huge increase in heroin use, and gangs there have made the situation tougher to combat, Billias said. Rockbridge County does not have the same kind of gang problem, Billias said, but the local law enforcement is concerned about the recent rise in heroin cases.

“They call it the ‘heroin highway.’ A lot of drugs go up and down 81,” said Billias. “It is a major conduit of the drug trade unfortunately.”

The Rockbridge Regional Drug Task Force consists of officers and drug investigators from Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, Lexington Police Department, Virginia State Police and Buena Vista Police Department. Gardner says the group mostly uses informants to control drugs in the area.

Informants are people with knowledge of the drug trade in the area who are looking for extra money or credit for past charges.  Informants make contacts, set up transactions, and then purchase drugs with state funds. Later the task force presents evidence to a grand jury, which indicts the people from whom they purchased drugs.

Learn more about how the task force works to eliminate drugs in the county.

On May 2, a grand jury issued indictments to 48 people and at least eight of them were heroin-related, said Gardner. Gardner describes Lexington and Rockbridge County as a user community, as opposed to a selling community, and he sees heroin mainly in the lower class, blue-collar population. “People that are selling drugs are more commonly selling to support their own habit,” Gardner said.

But that is not always the case.

A College Thing?

Billias said drugs are not concentrated in any particular part of the county, but noted that they are staying on top of students at Washington and Lee University. “People from the outside will sell it to students who then pass it along to other students.” Billias said.

In late September, three W&L students were arrested on charges of distribution of Schedule I or Schedule II narcotics, according to Rockbridge Circuit Court records. Schedule I and II includes most recreational drugs, like marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The arrests were part of a larger operation that targeted 79 local residents.

Dr. Jane Horton has been the director of student health and counseling services at W&L since 1996, and says the campus is just starting to reflect the national heroin problem. In the last three to four years she has seen about three students for heroin use, whereas in the years before that, there were none.

Phillip Flint, a drug investigator and member of the task force, said prescription pills and methamphetamine were the two biggest issues when he started on the task force in 2014. But because of recent legislation passed, he says it’s now harder to get prescription pills. “Heroin is making a big comeback because the pills are harder to get and heroin is readily accessible and also cheaper,” Flint said.

When asked about the best prevention methods, Flint laughed. “I don’t know if there is any,” he said. “Right now, it’s an epidemic. People are cutting it and putting stuff in it that shouldn’t be put in it and people are dying.”

Treatment & Prevention

The local police and Rockbridge Area Community Services (RACS) both point to education as the biggest part of prevention. Tony McFaddin, chief deputy of Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, says a three-pronged approach is the most successful. First, children need to be educated about the dangers to prevent them from starting in the first place. Second, there has to be a punishment if someone is caught dealing or using drugs. Third, a treatment program should be in place to save lives, McFaddin said.

Local law enforcement works closely with RACS to get treatment to people in the area who need it. Rockbridge County Sheriff Chris Blalock, Rockbridge Regional Jail Superintendent John Higgins, and Buena Vista Chief of Police Keith Hartman all serve on the RACS board of directors. “They see the side that RACS is on, and we understand what they’re facing from a judicial, legal system,” said Ann-Ashby McKissick, chair of the RACS board.  “We try to figure out how we can make this work on a local level.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 7.00.19 PMRecently, CVS Pharmacy in Lexington held a drug take-back for local residents to turn in their unused or expired medicine for safe disposal. The event, co-sponsored by all local police forces, RACS and the Drug Enforcement Administration, is an initiative aimed at keeping prescription pills from being diverted. Storage and disposal is a major focus of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse.

RACS helps people transition from addiction in an emotional, physical and psychological manner, but Rockbridge County does not have a methadone clinic, or a place where someone can get a substance that helps them get off a drug, said McKissick. The nearest treatment centers with those drugs are in Fishersville, Roanoke and Lynchburg.

Alexis, whose last name we are withholding because she faces criminal charges, struggled with her heroin addiction while attending Washington and Lee University last year. Alexis said she was always missing classes to drive back and forth to Fishersville to get suboxone, a drug that treats addiction to narcotics. She was eventually asked to leave school when the administration found she had broken her behavioral agreement and had used heroin on campus.

Alexis now lives in Buena Vista and has been struggling to get clean for over a year. Alexis says even though she’s been trying to wean herself off of the drug, it’s been very hard, and she doesn’t have health insurance to go to a treatment center. “I’m a mess,” she said. “I know I am.”

Hear Alexis talk more about her experience using heroin: