Unlike much of the rest of West Virginia, the Northern Panhandle does not appear to be suffering from an epidemic of illegal methamphetamines. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for two other drug problems - heroin and prescription painkillers.
In fact, abuse of drugs such as oxycodone has become "a prescription painkiller storm raining down on our region," U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld told our reporter. Ihlenfeld, who handles West Virginia's Northern District, said his staff deals with painkiller pill abuse "on a daily basis."
Misuse of painkiller pills is a complex problem, in part because the substances can be obtained legally, unlike heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana. Ihlenfeld's office has prosecuted people involved in painkiller distribution from every source, ranging from doctors who prescribe pills illegally to thefts from pharmacies. And within the past few weeks, the prosecutor and his staff, working with local law enforcement agencies, have shut down two rings supplying area residents with painkillers brought in from other states.
Local, state and federal agencies work very well together to combat drug abuse of all kinds. Often, they take the lead in crackdowns that result in multiple arrests.
But when one source of painkillers sold illegally is involved, local and state authorities lack the reach Ihlenfeld can bring to bear.
Two major painkiller rings from which arrests were made during recent weeks illustrate the challenge. In one set of arrests, a local man allegedly was obtaining painkillers from a supplier in Michigan. In another crackdown, local residents were linked to a woman in California. Another source of painkillers for some Northern Panhandle pushers has been Florida.
While local and state task forces can handle investigations here in West Virginia, the U.S. Attorney's office has the resources and authority to extend probes to other states.
Ihlenfeld has been a dedicated public servant who does not complain about needing more resources than his agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, provides. But his office - and, we suspect, many other U.S. attorneys - are on the front lines of a multi-state war against illegal drugs. It is vital they have enough money and personnel to be victorious.
Justice Department officials should take a look at that aspect of the war against illegal drugs. If U.S. attorneys, including Ihlenfeld, could make good use of additional resources, they should be provided immediately.