Illegal drugs have become a deadly merry-go-round in West Virginia. Just when the authorities believe they are making a dent in one form of abuse, another one comes around to take its place. Sometimes the cycle repeats itself.
Police and prosecutors seem to be having some success in cracking down on methamphetamine labs, synthetic drugs and prescription pill abuse. But some say that has resulted in more trafficking in heroin.
Price seems to be a factor. In part because arrests of prescription painkiller pushers have made the law of supply and demand kick in, the pills have become more expensive in some places. Heroin actually is cheaper.
But it is deadlier in some respects. West Virginia now has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation. There were 66 in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available.
In all likelihood, the actual toll is greater. Some overdose deaths may never be reported as such.
Another indicator of the upswing in heroin trafficking comes from a major drug interdiction agency that operates in this state, along with Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. In 2010, the Appalachian High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program reported confiscating 142 grams of heroin in West Virginia. By last year, seizures were up to 8,263 grams.
It would be one thing if law enforcement agencies could declare "mission accomplished" on other illegal drugs and focus their attention entirely on heroin. They cannot. Success is measured only in comparative terms - meth, pain pills, synthetic dope and other competitors for heroin remain serious threats.
Some law enforcement officials have confessed to us that they simply don't know what to do. They and their officers, along with prosecutors and judges, work hard and effectively against producers and pushers of illegal drugs. Look at the arrest logs and court dockets for evidence of that.
But some police chiefs and deputies with decades of experience say they have never seen drug abuse as pervasive as it is now in West Virginia.
Perhaps a first step is to determine what works and what does not. Are sentences for drug manufacturers and sellers stiff enough to serve as deterrents? Are special drug courts working? How about treatment? What forms of it succeed and do we have enough of that here?
In the meantime, law enforcement officials and officers should be given all the resources at our disposal to fight back against the epidemic. If that does not happen, matters will only grow worse.