Sheriff sees silver lining

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

When Sheriff David Jonese took office in January 2009, the drug landscape in Pocahontas County was bleak. The county was home to drug deals, drug overdoses and a plethora of prescription and illegal drugs.

“When I took over, I did some digging into the drug situation and we were listed number two, per capita, in a nationwide survey,” Jonese said. “We were worst in West Virginia based on population. We averaged five to seven overdoses a week. Those were not fatal overdoses, but those were overdoses [requiring treatment] at the hospital.”

Jonese recalled a day he visited Marlinton on the campaign trail and witnessed a drug deal on the corner across from the diner where he was having lunch. He also remembers his son, who was in the third grade at the time, telling him he was offered drugs on the school bus.

“It was pretty ugly that first year,” he said. “I didn’t know how bad it was. I knew everyone told us there was a drug problem, but if you don’t go out and look, you can ignore it and not really see it. Knowing that there was one, I was ready to go. That was my whole purpose – to go after the drug trade.”

Jonese’s aim was to cut off the drug trade at the source – the dealers. He wanted to hit the trade hard and get drugs off the street.

“My plan was strictly to go after it as hard as we could,” he said. “I had to learn how you do it and how is the best way to accomplish it within the system. We were going at it full speed and that was my number one priority. Everything we did was aimed at going after the dealers. To get rid of drugs, it’s got to be an all encompassing focus, but starting out, it was just a single focus. It was strictly go out, catch who was selling the drugs and arrest them.”

It wasn’t long into his crusade that Jonese found himself in possession of 259 names of individuals who were known for selling drugs locally.

The main drugs of choice at the time were prescription drugs. Individuals would get refills or steal prescriptions in order to sell pills to either feed their own addictions or to simply make money.

“Some were dealing strictly for money,” Jonese said. “What you find in a lot of cases, they are users and they trade back and forth to get a different drug or to pay for their own habit, so they sell some. We had a little bit of both, but the pills were just out of control here.”

Just four months after taking his position as Sheriff, Jonese said the Sheriff’s Department made a major drug bust which included 22 individuals.

“I’ll never forget our very first major drug bust,” he said. “We started in January and our first drug bust was in April of that year and we had twenty-two. We did that several times the first two years. We arrested a large number of people who were dealing their pills – some marijuana – but mostly prescription pills.”

In three years, Jonese said the Sheriff’s Department made more than 350 arrests for drug charges. The difficult part was getting those individuals prosecuted.

“The problem we faced was they weren’t being prosecuted,” Jonese said. “We would have to go over it again and again and again. What it came down to was a lot of people left, some people who weren’t into it heavy changed their lives, they quit and some just got better and slicker and hid better, but I think we made a big change.”

Over the last eight years, Jonese has seen a drastic change. Drugs are not gone – they will never be gone – but they are not as prevalent as they were.

“We don’t have an open-air market now,” he said. “I’m sure there’s still stuff that goes on in the mini-park occasionally, but it’s not like it was. Now it occurs more in the individual’s residence than it does anywhere else because it is much safer for them.

“Is it out there? Yea, it’s still out there,” Jonese continued. “Are we still working on it? Yes, we’re still working on it.”

Along with the streets, the schools are cleaner and there are fewer instances of students using drugs. The number of overdoses has decreased, as well.

“We’ve had maybe three overdoses reported in the last three to four years,” Jonese said. “We don’t have the drugs at the high school as we once did. We just don’t have drugs in town. The people I talk to who were in that line of work before tell me it’s much harder now than it had been before to get the drugs.”

The drug market has changed over the years, as well. While prescription drugs are still top choice, they have been replaced by prescription drugs like Subutex and Suboxone which are used to treat addiction.

“It has changed a lot in the fact that it’s not so much prescription drugs now,” Jonese said. “Now, the number one drug we’re dealing with across the state is the Subutex which is your medication to get you over your addiction that everyone gets a scrip for now. They are using and selling that.”

As someone who was bound and determined to put away the drug dealers and get the county clean, Jonese himself has experienced changes. At first, he followed the “if you do the crime, you do the time” motto, but now, he has learned that sometimes, jail is not the answer.

“The alternative sentencing – Day Report and Drug Court – have been a big benefit to us, as well,” he said. “It’s helped a lot. It depends on the individual. When I came in, I thought it was just that – you break the law, you go to jail. Well, I found out that system doesn’t work. My belief now is that if you are a dealer, then you need to pull time – you need to pull hard time. If you’re an addict that’s trading and selling drugs to feed your own addiction, then jail’s not the answer. It may be a short term fix to get you detoxed, but I think Drug Court and Day Report are a much more viable solution to take someone from your community who’s got that problem, get them clean and get them supervised.

“I’ve watched a lot of them over the period of time they go through Drug Court and they transform into a totally different person,” he continued. “That’s what you really want. There are cases where it needs to be jail, but if you’re a user, then the jail is not going to solve your problem.”

Jonese may feel sympathy for the addicts who are selling to feed a habit they can’t control, but the sympathy stops there. He still believes dealers need to be punished harshly the first time they come through the court system in order to stop the flow of drugs and to keep dealers off the streets.

“I think we have to get much harsher on sentencing of dealers,” he said. “We really have to quit making deals with these people. We need to take them to court, and we need to try them and convict them. You need to sentence them harshly.”
While alternative sentencing, Day Report and Drug Court are working well, Jonese feels the county needs to offer more services to individuals once they finish their required hours in order to keep them from going back to the same lifestyle they are trying to leave behind.

“There’s nowhere else to go and they’re right back in the same neighborhood, so we’re not doing a very good job of following up on what we’re asking them to do,” he said. “There are ways to make it even better than it is, it’s just going to take some more work. We’re going to have to get a lot more support in doing that to make it happen.”

One program Jonese is trying to start is an adult welding class. He thinks there are several trades that could be offered to help individuals find a job and keep them on the right path.

“We have to start making them make some hard choices,” he said. “You’ve got to finish your diploma. I’ve been trying to get some job training put in. I’m trying to get a welding class started. Things like that that we can use to prepare them. When they’re done with their recovery, they have something they can go do.”

It will take some funding to start programs and Jonese said he has received negative comments about helping reformed addicts, but he said it is better to help them get on their feet than it is to continue to pay for a jail cell and three meals a day.

“We might have to invest a little money now and put in some training programs, and put in some other things that we can operate out of the ARC and other places here,” he said. “That creates some opportunities and gets these people a chance to start over because maybe they’ve grown up now. That will cost us a lot less in the long run than to continue to play this game where we slap their hand and turn them loose, and then we spend countless hours and weeks and months to go through the cycle all over again.”

Now as he counts down the days until he hands the Sheriff’s badge to his successor, Jonese sees a glimmer of hope for the county and believes it will continue to move away from drugs and in the right direction.

“My hope is that maybe we’ve created a culture within the Sheriff’s Department and within the areas of the courthouse that we have impact on, and the community, that maybe we’ll just keep moving – slow as it is – keep moving farther and farther toward being more involved in schools, more involved in the communities, more involved with prevention and Day Report and Drug Court,” he said. “Maybe those things will continually keep moving and grow. If we keep doing that, it will continue to improve. It’s just slow gains. They’re small, but you’ve got to do them one step at a time.”

With the help of deputies who have been on the front line for years, Jonese said the communities and county as a whole will continue to fight the drug issue and hopefully, work together to help one another.

“It will continue,” he said. “I think if we can create some jobs in this county and do some other things, that will be a big step forward, too. I see the difference. Prevention [Coalition] does a lot of work in the schools. You can see that taking hold. Those issues we had when we first got here in the schools have greatly improved. It’s changing.”

Jonese plans to continue the fight until his last day in office and maybe even after.

“Until our last day, we’ll continue to do drug operations and continue to push those things, again with the hopes that whoever comes next just keeps the process moving, trying to improve it every day,” he said. “In a sense, there are so many things that I haven’t gotten done. Government here is just like working for the federal government – it moves very slow and it takes years to get something accomplished. If there was something I could do to continue, I would like to do that, but I don’t know if we have an option for that. I hate leaving when it’s not done.”

Second in a three-part series covering the issue of drug abuse and drug related issues in Pocahontas County.

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