For decades, most Fairfax County residents probably viewed heroin as the inner city’s problem, a drug more closely linked to Wall Street than Main Street. That perception changed dramatically on March 5, 2008, when 19-year-old Alicia Lannes died from a heroin overdose in her Centreville home. Alicia’s highly publicized death led to an FBI investigation, “Operation Smackdown” that resulted in the conviction of 16 people on federal drug charges.
Although Alicia’s case shone a spotlight on an insidious disease and led to changes in our schools, police departments and medical facilities, it’s safe to say the war on heroin — both locally and nationally — is just beginning.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that in Virginia, “officials recorded 91 accidental heroin deaths in the first nine months of 2012, up from 90 for all of 2011 and 70 for 2010.” Federal drug agents report that the amount of heroin seized along the nation’s southwestern borders quadrupled between 2008 and 2012. Official numbers are not yet in for 2013, but most early accounts have us trending in the wrong direction.
We were reminded of that last August when Emylee Lonczak, a 16-year-old McLean High School student, fatally overdosed after an acquaintance injected her with heroin. Many theories exist as to why an age-old city drug like heroin is suddenly rearing its head in Fairfax and other suburban counties around the country. The easy answer is that it’s a lot cheaper and easier to find than it used to be. It’s also a lot more potent. A bored, cash-strapped 15-year-old in Herndon can get a mind-numbing high that lasts for several hours for the price of a movie ticket or a Subway sandwich. Unfortunately, what many first-time users don’t know is that a large percentage of them will become dependent on the drug after just one use. As a result, a short-lived party “high” becomes a 24-hour a day, seven day-a-week habit that’s life altering. Suddenly, that initial $10 hit turns into a $200-a-day habit and the wheels keep spinning from there. Goodbye grades, goodbye sports, goodbye friends, goodbye family and, all too often, goodbye future.
Once-big dreams are replaced by jail time. Drug prevention experts say heroin addicts will do just about anything to secure their next high. At first, that means taking a $20 bill or blank check from mom’s purse. Eventually, it escalates to robbing a neighbor’s home, selling stolen property or stealing credit card information to support their habit.
To their credit, Fairfax County officials haven’t turned a blind eye to the issue, scoring solid marks on the enforcement, treatment and prevention fronts. The next phase in this battle should include a well-honed heroin prevention campaign that makes potential users turn away before smoking, injecting or swallowing anything to do with heroin. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, more than 75 percent of people who try heroin once will use the drug again. With numbers like that, the message needs to get out to Virginia’s young people before heroin reaches them. That can be accomplished through social media, television and radio ads. Plastering posters and stickers in public venues would be wise, too.
Tougher laws must also be part of the equation.
At a bare minimum, increase mandatory sentences for people convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin. The current mandatory penalty for someone dealing 100 grams of heroin is five years. That figure should be raised to at least 10, and preferably 20. By doing so, a clear message would be delivered to those thinking about dealing heroin in our state. These folks are selling a drug that kills thousands of Americans each year, and should be viewed as violent offenders.
Communities cannot fight today’s problem without adequate treatment and enforcement, and every resident of Fairfax County has a direct stake in winning this fast-moving war on heroin.