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Editorial: Increasing drug-related crime is a problem for everybody

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 05:14 PM

Most law officers understand the link between drug abuse and property crime.

But for West Virginia State Police Sgt. G.N. Losh, the picture was painted all too plainly during a recent shoplifting arrest near Huntington. In the suspect's pocket, he found a hypodermic needle.

For too many addicts, stealing is part of a daily routine to get money or goods to trade for drugs. Widespread prescription pain pill abuse, and the associated increase in heroin use in our area and across the country, have likely made the problem even worse.

Nationally, the number of people using heroin doubled between 2007 and 2011, according to surveys from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The report also showed that people who had used prescription pain relievers for nonmedical reasons were 19 times more likely to have initiated heroin use. Or looking at it another way, four out of five recent heroin beginners had previously abused prescription pain relievers.

Typically, the switch from the more predictable, professionally manufactured opiate pain pills to heroin is itself a sign of growing addiction problems. A user's supply of pain pills may have dried up or financial troubles may mean they can no longer afford the pills.

Heroin is often the less-expensive alternative, but it is highly addictive and can vary in purity and potency. Addicts can quickly feel a craving for more drugs or the onset of painful withdrawals.

That cycle makes for desperate people, and the result is more impulsive crimes -- purse snatchings, shoplifting, car break-ins and other quick thefts.

"The reports coming across my desk are alarming," Losh told The Herald-Dispatch last week. "The sheer magnitude, the sheer number that we're seeing. I mean 55 shoplifting reports in less than a month -- that's something that you can't ignore."

Certainly, these crimes deserve a strong response. That includes jail time for repeat offenders. But the underlying addiction problems need attention, too. Alternative sentencing is often the best approach for first-time offenders, but it must be linked to mandatory, effective treatment.

Communities and states also need to invest more in promoting prevention and increasing awareness about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and its links to rising heroin use. As the rash of property crimes shows, this is everybody's problem.

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