Police in Southside say they’ve seen a significant increase in the number of drug offenses in their area and are looking at ways to combat the problem.
The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia has held panel discussions on drugs throughout Virginia, but Thursday night, officials held this kind of meeting for the first time in Martinsville.
While law enforcement plays a role in the solution, according to police, it’s also about educating the public on treatment and prevention.
“I wish I could have stayed in school back then and actually became that pro-football player that I always thought I was going to be,” said Melvin Johnson, who serves as a re-entry coordinator for Solutions That Empower People, or STEP.
Johnson is all too familiar with the consequences of addiction.
“I was an addict going in and out of prison,” he explained.
Johnson said he struggled with cocaine use for 20 years.
“It slowed me down some, so it took me a lot longer to get to the places that I wanted to go and be in my life, but I’m just happy that I’m still here,” he said.
But not all recovering addicts are still here. And officials are trying to prevent the worst.
Narcotics officers in Martinsville have been handling more and more cases just in the past year, according to police.
“This problem is outgrowing everybody,” said Karl Colder, special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. “It’s in small communities, it’s in large communities, it’s in places that we’ve never had to go in before.”
Colder oversees Virginia and several other states for the DEA. A lack of awareness about the drug problem is what’s causing it to spread, he explained.
“Drug dealers treat areas like Martinsville as virgin soil,” Colder said. “Small communities where they can entrench themselves and import and distribute.”
Officials said they hope bringing that awareness to Martinsville and Henry County can help turn things around.
“If there’s a plan in place, then we can tell someone who’s addicted to heroin, for example, and wants to get off of heroin who to call,” said Rick Mountcastle, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
As for Melvin Johnson, he said he has been clean for more than a decade and is finishing up a degree in social work. He’s paying it forward through his work with STEP, helping prisoners re-enter society. He said that includes some who have battled addiction.
“Change is right here in front of us, but we just have to choose it,” Johnson said.
Mountcastle said he has also met with local leaders in law enforcement, schools and religious groups to discuss the issue. They are working on ways to implement more local programs focusing on treatment and prevention, he added.