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Senators, McKinley back Wood County drug designation


The Parkersburg News and Sentinel

WASHINGTON — Both of West Virginia’s senators and its 1st District congressman are calling for Wood County to be designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

A letter signed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to Richard Baum, acting director for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, expresses support for the efforts of a coalition of law enforcement agencies seeking the designation.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) designation would enable Wood County to receive federal resources to further the coordination and development of drug control efforts among federal, state and local law enforcement officials, according to a release from Manchin’s office.

It also will allow local agencies to benefit from ongoing HIDTA-coordinated initiatives working to reduce drug use and its consequences across the United States, it said.

Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens is excited by the possibilities this designation would present.

“It will bring financial support for major drug investigations,” he said. “It will also allow for more resources, including manpower. It is a great thing.”

Williamstown Chief of Police Shawn Graham said the Parkersburg Violent Crimes and Narcotics Task Force applied for the designation.

“We’ve had support from a lot of state lawmakers,” he said. “All local departments heads have been supporting this and it can be a big asset to all departments.”

Parkersburg Police Chief Joe Martin said the designation can draw funds to pay for overtime and equipment and be used for investigative purposes, such as making controlled drug purchases.

“”It’s very hard on our local budgets to sustain a long-term investigation,” he said.

In his release, Manchin said law enforcement must have the resources to deal with the drugs entering the state.

“The well-being of our West Virginia families and communities depends on ending this epidemic and it is one of my highest priorities,” he said. “I am eager to work with Acting Director Baum to ensure that Wood County and other high-risk communities throughout West Virginia get the resources they need to fight this epidemic.”

If accepted, Wood would be the 21st county in West Virginia to receive the HIDTA designation. The others are Berkeley, Boone, Brooke, Cabell, Hancock, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Marshall, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Monongalia, Ohio, Putnam, Raleigh, Wayne and Wyoming.

The letter lists criteria to demonstrate why the designation is needed.

”West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the country, with 34 per 100,000 people suffering drug overdose fatalities,” it says. ”Wood County alone sees 23 per 100,000 residents suffering drug overdose fatalities.”

Wood County is just hours away by vehicle from numerous major U.S. cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest, the letter says, adding that drug trafficking organizations with ties to places like Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Cleveland threaten the area.

”The flow of drugs into West Virginia and Wood County is made much easier due to the presence of Interstate 77 and U.S. Route 50 that both run through and intersect in the heart of Wood County,” the letter says. ”Interstate 77 runs from Cleveland, Ohio, to Columbia, S.C., and is commonly used to bring narcotics into Wood County as well as transport narcotics north and south in the eastern United States.

”Interstate 77 also allows direct access to Interstate 70 as it intersects with Interstate 77, approximately 45 miles north of Wood County. Interstate 70 is one of the nation’s busiest highways and is a major transportation route for illicit drugs across the U.S.”

From 2010 to 2016, Wood County’s drug-related overdose deaths have risen by 260 percent, the letter says. In 2016, Wood County ranked fifth in the state for fatal overdoses, according to the West Virginia Office of Vital Statistics. The four counties ahead of it are all HIDTA-designated.

”The counties that ranked first, second, third and fourth have already been designated as HIDTA counties,” the letter says. ”The Mid-Ohio Valley, which includes Wood County, is a significant source of heroin, cocaine and pharmaceutical drug trafficking.

”Five other counties in North Central West Virginia have also been designated as HIDTA counties because of the heavy drug trafficking throughout the area.”

The designation would allow more resources to be devoted to the fight against drugs, the letter says,

”The additional funding that (an) HIDTA designation would bring to Wood County would provide a tremendous boost to the Task Force’s tireless efforts, help fund longer-term and broader-scoped drug investigations and benefit communities and citizens not only in West Virginia, but the entire Mid-Ohio Valley region.”

(Staff writers Evan Bevins and Jeffrey Saulton contributed to this story.)

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