From pot to heroin, drug offenses soar

November 10, 2013

By Lee Francis

Drug violations in Ashland have more than doubled this year compared with 2012, and the variety of narcotics being recovered has local officials alarmed.

While marijuana remains the most common street drug, Ashland Police are also discovering a variety of illegally possessed prescription drugs and harder drugs.

“We are starting to see kind of a smattering across the board of small amounts of the stronger drugs,” said Chief Douglas Goodman Jr.

Among the substances recovered by officers is heroin, a strong and severely addictive opiate. Ashland officers have made six arrests for the substance this year, up from three in 2012. But Goodman still called the half-dozen arrests a “concerning amount.”

Heroin arrests constitute 5 percent of the total narcotics violations in town so far this year. Slightly more than half of all incidents involved marijuana, while a third concerned prescription pills and 10 percent involved cocaine.

Between January and August of 2013, there were 101 total drug violations in Ashland, versus 48 recorded during the same time frame last year.

In all of 2012, there were 70 narcotics violations.

Ashland Police have also seen the number of drug equipment, or paraphernalia, violations more than double – from 28 last year to 64 this year. This would include any devices used to ingest illegal substances.

Overall, drug offenses constitute 30 percent of all violations reported through the end of August this year.

The trend does not extend into Hanover County, where drug violations are actually down. According to Lt. Chris Whitley, of the Hanover Sheriff’s Office, narcotics violations through the end of August dropped 4.8 percent from the year prior, with 276 incidents this year compared to 290 in 2012.

Statewide, Virginia had about 50,000 drug offenses in 2011, according to the most recent statistics in the Federal Bureau of Investigation “National Incident-Based Reporting System.” Of the 36 states that reported such data, only Tennessee had more drug offenses than Virginia.

The FBI also tracks whether drugs or alcohol played a part in other crime activity. In 2011, on a national level, drugs were involved in 2 percent of “crimes against persons” – offenses ranging from assault and homicide to kidnapping and sex crimes. This rate pales in comparison with alcohol, which played a part in 12 percent of offenses against persons.

Locally, Goodman credits the increase in drug violations to the “proactive” approach his officers are taking in the field.

“Our officers are out there always looking to interdict criminal activity; that’s their job,” Goodman said.

Officers are uncovering the bulk of narcotics during routine traffic stops, Goodman said, adding that traffic enforcement is one of the most effective tools in deterring criminal behavior.

“A good majority of our drug arrests do stem from the original traffic stop and officers going beyond the mere issuance of a ticket to determine if a crime is afoot,” he said.

Lt. James Shelhorse added that detecting drug activity also stems from encounters with pedestrians or bicyclists or other individuals encountered during an officer’s daily routine.

Goodman said the department hasn’t changed anything on the operations side that might account for the uptick, noting that the opportunity to make drug arrests is presenting itself more often.

“If we’re not monitoring things on a weekly or monthly basis and altering our activities, making these incremental changes to what we’re trying to deal with from a crime perspective, then I’m not getting the job done for the community,” Goodman said.

Shelhorse said training for law enforcement is always improving, which could be helping officers better know what to look for during traffic stops. Shelhorse also credited partnerships with local agencies and task forces as helping keep drugs off of the streets.

While harder drugs like cocaine and heroin are a concern for local law enforcement, Goodman also said that his officers are recovering a variety of prescription medication such as painkillers or sedatives.

“The pills are something that’s really concerning to us, because in its form, in a pill bottle, assigned to the person who got it at a drug store – perfectly legal. And it can go from a legal perspective to an illegal venue very quickly, just by changing hands,” he said.

Ashland Police participate in the National Drug Take-Back Day, established to help keep prescription drugs out of the wrong hands by disposing of them safely. This year’s event was held at the Ashland Police Station on England Street on Oct. 26.

Goodman is also looking into ways to implement a year-round drug take-back program to address what he called a “big problem” in Ashland. He also urges citizens to read about methods the FDA encourages to dispose of prescription medications.

Here is a spreadsheet containing data compiled by the Ashland Police Department as well as statistics from the FBI looking at state-by-state drug activity and how that factors into other crime.