New anti-drug message is spreading into schools

A tour of high schools in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle last year saw U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II taking his anti-drug message into some strange places.

At Oak Glen High School in Hancock County, he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Vogrin spoke to fall sports athletes in a plush auditorium, but elsewhere, the conditions weren’t so nice.

“We went to this one place in rural West Virginia where we couldn’t plug in our laptops. It was pouring rain, and the players were covered in mud. We just went into the locker room and talked to them and it was great,” he said. “Just talking to the kids in that setting was extremely effective.”

Ihlenfeld, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, said his “Project Future Two-a-Days” program for high schools has gained urgency with the proliferation of illicit drugs, especially painkillers and heroin.

Demand for one feeds off the other, he said.

“When users can no longer get access to prescription drugs, or can’t afford them, they switch over to heroin, which could be as cheap as $4 per dose,” he said. “(Heroin) provides a better high and a longer-lasting high, depending on the purity level, so you get more bang for your buck with heroin than with prescription opioids.”

Ihlenfeld said his office continues to see signs of heroin’s rise as the drug of choice among dealers and users in the Northern Panhandle everything from more drug prosecutions to an increase in overdose deaths.

Some studies rank West Virginia as No. 1 in the country for drug overdose deaths. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of overdose deaths in Hancock County rose 700 percent – from zero to 15. Ihlenfeld’s office does not have more current figures.

“We’ve seen purity levels in the 90 percent range in Hancock County,” he said. “The user doesn’t know when he puts it into his vein what the purity level is going to be. All he knows is what the drug dealer has told him. If the purity level is higher than what his body is accustomed to, that can lead to an overdose and sometimes a death.”

While Ihlenfeld’s office does not deal with juveniles, it has prosecuted emancipated teenagers. “We’re seeing people just past the high school age who are involved in using or dealing heroin or prescription pills,” he said.