BY: Elise Eckman, Rachel Levy, and Dean Greenwood
After taking us on a tour of the facilities at NW Works, we sat down with Charles Harbaugh IV, Mayor of Middletown, VA to discuss how he has seen the opioid epidemic grow in his hometown of Middletown and the Winchester area and how, as someone in a leadership position, he is dealing with the issue.
Harbaugh was born and raised in the Shenandoah Valley and graduated from Shenandoah University for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in business.
Our small corner of the Shenandoah Valley is currently facing an opioid epidemic. Because of our location near Baltimore, MD, Martinsburg, WV, and two major highways, the use of heroin has crept into our otherwise quiet communities.
The opioid problem wasn’t always in this area when Harbaugh was growing up. “It [the opioid epidemic] was a thing in West Virginia. It was not here. We always had our problems here with marijuana and cocaine, but heroin is new. This has crept in from Martinsburg and Baltimore” said Harbaugh.
The Mayor also made a point to say how heroin affects all societal and political classes. “These drugs affect not just poor people, but rich people, White people, Black people, women, and men. I mean all these types of people are affected by this and you see it taking a big toll. There have been 40 deaths last year in Winchester, Frederick County, and Clarke County alone”
“The opioid problem has gotten tremendously worse. 100 times worse in the last three or four years” Harbaugh said.
The community, especially law enforcement really started taking notice about two to three years ago.
Since the worsening of the crisis, local law enforcement has begun using a drug called Narcan. Narcan is administered to overdose victims and has the ability to reverse the effects of the overdose and save the victim’s life.
“I just told you 40 people died, but you would be surprised that 200 people were revived. Those 200 people that would’ve died before Narcan was invented” said Harbaugh. “Narcan is being used by all law enforcement in this area. The sheriff’s office started it, but now the fire officials have it too because a lot of times they are the first at the scene”.
Narcan is a quick fix, but it is also “encouraging people to keep doing this. It’s called ‘chasing the dragon.’ Which means people are trying to get as high as the first time they did it. People try to replicate that and they can’t. They have to take more and more every time, which often leads to overdose” said Harbaugh.
People chase the dragon, get revived by Narcan, and assume that they will be able to be revived again so they chase the dragon yet again. While saving as many lives as possible is the goal, it comes at a price. “This is a huge cost to taxpayers because every time the police have to go and investigate or the fire department has to go and slam them with Narcan, that’s $400 a shot. So $400 multiplied by the 200 overdose cases is $80,000. Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke spent $80,000 last year reviving 200 people” said Harbaugh.
Unfortunately, Narcan can’t save everyone. Sometimes first responders get there too late. Heroin is very much a private drug. “It’s not something to be proud of so people are doing it in solitude” said Harbaugh. This just adds to the difficulty of reviving the victim if they overdose.
“There’s been three heroin deaths in Middletown since I became the mayor in 2012. Three deaths is not bad compared to other places, but it’s more than I would’ve ever thought in Middletown. I knew all these folks, but you didn’t know they were doing heroin” said Harbaugh.
“When I was growing up, this was something from the movies. The people using drugs were like heavy dudes – not local people. But it has become part of the area which is unfortunate” Harbaugh said. He continued to say that this problem will be incredibly hard, near impossible to fix. “The solution starts with the minds of people. People have to decide ‘I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to start’”.
In addition to a change in mindset, often the economy and drug use are related. With the recent improvement of the economy, hopefully drug use will decrease. Harbaugh said, “if the economy is good, drug use goes down, and deaths go down. When the economy is good usually people are working. They are productive with their time. They’re going to school, getting jobs, working full time. They’re staying busy.”
So with all the talk about how devastating the opioid epidemic is and how it has become a massive issue in the generally recognized safe, amiable area of the Shenandoah Valley, what is actually being done about it?
As mayor of a small town, Harbaugh has made it a personal goal to work closely with law enforcement and all elected officials to try and find answers to this epidemic and crack down on it.
“Our law enforcement works with Winchester and other local officials as part of the regional drug task force. What a lot of our local municipalities are working on is compiling resources to report ‘I got this heroin. Have you ever seen something like this?’ and officials can say ‘yes, I know where this came from’ then run traces to see if the drug came from Baltimore or wherever” said Harbaugh.
“The regional drug task force is making it a priority to crack down on large to mid-level drug dealers. They’re not trying to get little people who are selling to their friends; they’re trying to get the main guy” said Harbaugh.
There is also a heavy amount of law enforcement in this area. “We have patrols from the Middletown police department, Frederick County Sheriff’s Department, and we also get state police” Harbaugh said.
These patrols and large number of police in the area are important because Winchester, Middletown, and other towns in the Shenandoah Valley are easily accessible from major interstates.
“Interstates are key to the drug trade. Many of these people are getting off in towns and then selling the product. So I-66 and I-81 they call the heroin highway. People are just trafficking this stuff. They’re taking it from Baltimore and running it up to West Virginia and all these exits along the way where they could possibly sell it” said Harbaugh.
Despite the abundance of law enforcement and the introduction and implementation of Narcan, Mayor Harbaugh has not seen much improvement in the situation.
“It hasn’t gotten better yet and I don’t think it’s going to get better. No law is going to fix this. The Narcan just seemed to make it more reasonable for people to do it because, they know they can get revived. We’ve already had a bunch of January and February deaths so we’re on pace for more than 40 deaths this year. We are on pace for 2018 to be much worse than 2017” Harbaugh said.
“This problem needs to be fixed in the hearts and minds of people” Harbaugh continued, we have to say, ‘Enough is enough. We can’t go down this road’.
To Harbaugh, the solution to this epidemic starts at home. “Parenting and your upbringing and those kinds of things play a big role in whether or not a child picks up drugs”. He continued to say, “strong communities can help out. They say that you become a combination of the five people you hang out with the most, so if people are hanging out with drug dealers, they’re going to be a drug dealer and they are going to be doing drugs. There has to be a stronger community, stronger partnerships, and there has to be better mentors who come in these districts and areas who help fix these issues”.
It may be too late to cure the opioid epidemic in this generation, however through education of today’s children on the dangers of opioids, there could be a reversal in the tide.
We build our youth for the future. Perhaps we can build them up to withstand the draws of this epidemic.