At Panhandle roundtable, officials say W.Va. drug problem a 'crisis'

Acting Gov. Tomblin suggests working closely with Md. governor to tackle interstate drug trade

June 29, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • West Virginia acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is seen in this file photo speaking to an April 4 gathering of businesspeople in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. — West Virginia acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday that he has spoken with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley about illegal drug activity crossing state lines and suggested the two governors could work more closely to tackle Baltimore’s heroin trade.

“Perhaps it’s something that we could work on together ... even though he’s the governor, not the mayor (of Baltimore), still I think those discussions probably need to happen ... and hopefully can influence some change over there, which could possibly help us here,” Tomblin said in a roundtable discussion with local law-enforcement and community leaders at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Ralph Lorenzetti told Tomblin that his office has seen a “major increase” in heroin cases linked to Baltimore in the last five years. Many of the people are young adults, 18- and 19-years old, Lorenzetti said.

“They rob a place here, they stop in Frederick (Md.,), pawn all the CDs they stole, go to Baltimore get the heroin, come back and die,” Lorenzetti said.
“I hate to say it that way, but it’s a problem,” he said.

Tomblin’s visit was the fourth in a series of meetings he has held statewide, saying earlier that he wanted to have a frank discussion on drug use and abuse issues. The governor intends to appoint a state-level task force to tackle what he described as a “crisis.”

Tomblin encouraged those who attended Wednesday’s roundtable discussion to establish “a working group” in the Eastern Panhandle to help target the region’s particular issues, which the governor said were not the same as other regions in the state.

In opening remarks, Tomblin said he was provided with statistics indicating 45 percent of new admissions to the Eastern Panhandle Day Report Center were for drug arrests, up 33 percent from the last six months of 2010.

Tomblin also noted more than 22,000 hospitalizations since 2009 in West Virginia were for alcohol and substance abuse.

Among the feedback Tomblin received in Wednesday’s meeting, was a request for more state troopers to be assigned to the Eastern Panhandle, which Troop 2 Captain Robert A. Blair said was the agency’s biggest need, along with funding.

Jesse Jones, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s chief of staff, advocated for a law change that would allow deputies to have jurisdiction statewide.

State Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said the drug use issue threatens continued economic growth.

“If we do not address this as West Virginia, we can’t remain competitive in attracting the Macy’s ... so this argument that it may take a lot of money, I say it an investment because in order for us to continue to grow, we have to address this,” Unger told Tomblin.

He later repeated Blair and Jefferson County Commission member Patsy Noland’s request in the meeting for additional state troopers.

Unger said more needs to be done to provide a transition for people being released from jail after serving time behind bars.

“Once they’re released, it’s almost like — here’s your watch, here’s your belongings, here’s the $5 you had in your pocket. Good luck,” Unger said.

“And they shut the door, and they walk, out and they have no where to go.”

This creates a situation where they can fall back into a bad situation very quickly,” said Unger, suggesting the ties between the faith community and state agencies could be improved to help address this problem.

Del. Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, said in the last six months, 80 percent of the emails she has received were drug- and alcohol-related. She noted a need for peer-to-peer counseling for first-time offenders.

“That to me is scary,” Lawrence said.

Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth M. Lemaster said efforts should be comprehensive in tackling the drug problem, rather than “piecemeal,” which he said he has witnessed in his more than 30 years in law enforcement.  

State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, suggested the state could consider an incentive-based program such as one used in Pennsylvania that allows first-time offenders an opportunity to clear their record if they complete a rehabilitation program and stay clean for two years.

“It is a perplexing problem, it’s an octopus with tentacles all out, causing all kinds of problems,” Snyder said.

Seated alongside Tomblin for the meeting were Kimberly A. Walsh and Mary Aldred-Crouch of the state Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities; Joe DeLong, deputy secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety; and Blair.

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