Federal drug officials: Meth displacing opioids as threat to region

Mike Still • Mar 7, 2020 at 4:30 PM

WISE — Methamphetamine is now a bigger threat than opioids to Southwest Virginia drug users, federal drug officials told a group of sheriffs at a roundtable meeting Friday.

James W. Carroll, director of the White House’s National Office of Drug Control Policy, met with sheriffs and police chiefs from the region, federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents and Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-Salem at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise to discuss enforcement and drug trafficking issues facing Southwest Virginia.

DEA Assistant Special Agent Chris Goumenis, who oversees DEA operations in the southern part of Virginia from the west to Hampton Roads, told the group that opioid overdoses are dropping nationally but methamphetamine overdoses are on the rise.

Carroll said that drug overdose deaths nationally have decreased by about 4%, but the proportion of meth overdose deaths is on the rise. Part of the attempt to partner the DEA and federal resources to deal with drug trafficking in the past three decades, he said, has been the HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas) program.

Carroll said HIDTA helps coordinate federal law enforcement — from the FBI and DEA to the U.S. Postal Service — with local and state agencies to target regions where high levels of drug trafficking and transport have been identified.

The Appalachia HIDTA, which covers parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, also includes Lee, Scott, Wise and Dickenson counties and Norton in Virginia and Sullivan, Hawkins, Green and Washington counties in Tennessee.

“The money spent on HIDTA is a good return on the investment,” Carroll said.

Carroll said that methamphetamine has become “dirt cheap and incredibly pure” and Mexican cartels have learned better ways of making it. Part of the rise of meth trafficking has stemmed from marijuana legalization and decriminalization in the U.S., he said, encouraging cartel operations to find something more profitable to replace it.

Cartel trafficking operations also use imprisoned Mexican nationals who can access cell phones and social media to recruit U.S. residents to haul shipments, Carroll said.

Goumenis said that, while U.S. efforts to pressure the People’s Republic of China to prohibit shipments of methamphetamine ingredients to the U.S. have been successful, Chinese operations are making those shipments in bulk via merchant shipping through other countries.

“In the Netherlands, we’re seeing Mexicans going there to learn how to make meth,” Carroll said. “I feel OK about the decrease in opioid traffic, but I’m not at all optimistic about meth.”

Kevin Mullins, executive director of Dickenson County Behavioral Health Services, said his staff face problems with helping treat arrested meth addicts because of the unpredictable composition of meth after dealers cut it with various substances to stretch their supply.

“There’s no good protocol for dealing with meth addiction,” Mullins said. “We don’t know what the hell they have in their system.”

Wise County Sheriff Grant Kilgore said dealing with meth has brought more violence.

“It seems we’ve traded the marijuana problem for the meth problem,” Kilgore said of the change in more than two decades. “It seems like we’ve created a meth problem by decriminalizing marijuana.”

Lee County Sheriff Gary Parsons said localities are also facing shortages in long-term treatment services in the region for people trying to recover from meth addictions.

“The only option I have is to lock them up, and we don’t have treatment centers,” Parsons said. “Long-term inpatient treatment is what’s needed.”

Griffith said more oversight is needed of some inpatient treatment facilities that use addicted patients as a way to get insurance payment revenue.

“Not everyone with a pretty website is doing a good job,” Griffith said of the treatment service situation nationwide.

UVA-Wise Vice Chancellor Shannon Blevins said the college’s work with the Healthy Appalachia Institute and other organizations is aiming toward expanding telemedicine services into behavioral health as one way to help with recovery services.

Ballad Health physician Thomas Renfro said that economic conditions in Southwest Virginia also complicate the drug trafficking and abuse situation.

“There’s no systematic treatment for meth,” Renfro said. “In Southwest Virginia, from my standpoint, we’re not in an economic boom, and there’s a lack of opportunity to escape the problem.”

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