Our city has not escaped the ravages of the national opioid crisis. Heroin and related narcotics have made a huge and unfortunate comeback over the past five years, but with an unusually deadly twist: the addition of fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic drug 100 times more potent than morphine.
Drug users in search of a greater high have been turning to fentanyl. In 2017, almost 60 percent of U.S. drug overdose deaths involved fentanyl or similar compounds as opposed to just 15 percent of deaths in 2010.
This particular opioid is so potent that police officers cannot conduct field tests on suspected fentanyl for fear that an officer may accidentally overdose through skin transmission. In an earlier article, I discussed the huge increase in opioid overdoses and deaths in the city. That trend has unfortunately continued unabated into 2019.
My office has partnered with several other law enforcement agencies, including the Alexandria Police Department’s Vice/ Narcotics Section, the Virginia State Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to attack complex drug trafficking organizations that are bringing large amounts of heroin into the city.
During the past two years, we have successfully dismantled two DTOs responsible for the distribution of several kilograms of heroin, fentanyl and related opioids. On two occasions, Alexandria juries returned guilty verdicts in racketeering or conspiracy cases and recommended significant sentences. These results show that the citizenry is aware of the immense danger opioids present to the community and is taking distribution seriously.
Dismantling DTOs and holding racketeers accountable for their intentional profiteering off the misery of others is only part of the equation, in that these tactics attack the supply of opioids. Significant resources must also be brought to bear on the demand for these narcotics, and I sincerely believe that potential jail sentences are an ineffective deterrent to people caught in the throes of heroin addiction. Forward-thinking programs are needed to address drug dependence. This is why I am so excited about the city’s new drug treatment court, an idea whose time is overdue.
Our new treatment court is designed to break the paradigm of arrest and jail time for people who are caught possessing user amounts of narcotics. The treatment court is designed to provide intensive supervision and treatment for people suffering from addiction. National Institute of Justice statistics prove treatment courts have incredible benefits for the community: they reduce recidivism, thereby reducing crime, and lower costs for their communities.
Furthermore, the rate of participants successfully completing the program is usually high. This success rate is, to a degree, due to the intensive nature of the program. Participants routinely appear before the court, along with members of their treatment team, so that the court may be updated on the participant’s progress and adherence to the prescribed treatment regime.
More importantly, participants must truly want to be in the program. Treatment court is not forced on anyone, instead the offender must elect to participate. The fact that, to some extent, participants are self-selecting is an ingredient in a successful recipe. I also note that successful completion is neither easy nor assured from the outset; the program is intensive and designed to help a person who truly wants to address their underlying issues.
The treatment court project is also an example of the best city government has to offer. The program is a collaborative effort and a number of city agencies are involved, without which the court would never have gotten off the ground. A group of dedicated city employees just completed mandatory training on the treatment court and the program will launch by Aug. 1.
Law enforcement cannot solve the issue of opioid addiction alone. Education is a huge component. As a society, we must focus on explaining the damage narcotics use causes to young people. The best response to the demand issue is to prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place.
Where prevention fails, we simply must provide treatment and services to addicted citizens to break the cycle of despair. The city’s new treatment court is a huge step in the right direction.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.