Session focuses on cutting demand
HUNTINGTON -- Although acknowledging there's no single solution for prescription drug abuse, participants in a roundtable convened by the national drug-policy director on Thursday spelled out a variety of ideas to attack the problem.
The ideas ranged from providing more resources for treatment and recovery programs to stepping up efforts to educate young children about the dangers of drugs.
The session in Huntington was led by Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, and he noted that the drug abuse problem is not confined to one particular state or county.
"We're talking about drugs today that are not being smuggled across the border, but those right in the medicine cabinets of our own homes," Kerlikowske said. "It's not just a problem for West Virginia, but nationwide."
Among those present for the roundtable, hosted at the Marshall University Forensic Science Center, were Sen. Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin, state legislators, and members of the Cabell County Prosecutor's Office, West Virginia State Police, Huntington Police Department and Cabell County Sheriff's Department. A similar session involving many of the same participants was held in Charleston later Thursday.
Scott Masumoto of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration cited state health statistics that more than 152,000 West Virginians have an addiction to prescription medication -- more than 8 percent of the population.
Rockefeller called prescription drug abuse an issue for not only the police and court system, but for prevention, treatment and mental health professionals as well.
"People go to jail and get detoxed, but they don't kick the habit. We treat them like they're cured and then they're right back in it," Rockefeller said. "We are dealing with the most difficult, painful human situation that exists. We cannot be overwhelmed by problems that seem impossible to fix.
"There is no immediate solution and no silver bullet, but that makes no difference to us," Rockefeller said, motioning to the panel. "We just go ahead. You hope and you pray, but you just keep at it."
Goodwin highlighted increase drug enforcement, utilization of drug courts and drug takeback events as recent successes, and DEA official Scott Masumoto credited a renewed focus on regulatory oversight and active or legislated prescription monitoring programs in all but one state as crucial steps forward.
Vickie Jones, CEO of Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital and lead on the Governor's Advisory Council on Substance Abuse, said there is much work yet to be done and noted nearly $30 million in funding in the past several years devoted to prevention and treatment services, day treatment programs, supportive housing and intensive outpatient care.
"It serves no purpose to provide treatment without prevention and recovery," said Jones, highlighting the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment program, a integrated approach to the delivery of early intervention and treatment services for people with substance use disorders.
Among the calls to action presented during the session were Evan Jenkins' proposal for a standalone facility for babies born to drug-addicted mothers and West Virginia State Police Capt. Tim Bradley's proposal for an education campaign presented to elementary school children.
"Fifteen or 20 years ago, high school students thought it was cool to smoke, but thanks to a successful education campaign about the dangers of smoking, those percentages have decreased," Bradley said. "Right now we have an epidemic of drug use with no dirty stigma attached. We need to focus on educating our youngsters and put that dirty stigma on prescription drug abuse."
Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, received the applause of the audience for presenting his plan to curb abuse, including pursuing and incarcerating any and all drug pushers to the maximum extent of the law; treating abuse as a disease instead of a crime; and opening long-term recovery facilities across the nation.
"I've supported more taxes on both beer and cigarettes," Perdue said, highlighting the lack of enough facilities to treat and rehabilitate drug abusers. "A lot of people disagree with me on it, but I'll keep the fires of opposition burning high enough that they may burn after I've left the room or I've burned up in it."
Cabell County Prosecutor Chris Chiles said the entire issue boils down to supply and demand.
"We traditionally attack the supply side, but until we reduce the demand, we're never going to make a dent in the supply," Chiles said.
While Thursday's sessions were focused on prescription drugs, officials also noted an increase in heroin trafficking as users seek out less expensive drugs. Goodwin said that while prescription drugs represent the biggest crime problem in West Virginia's southern district, heroin seizures by drug task forces have increased more than fourfold from 2011 to 2012.
Goodwin said what is especially striking is the potential for overdoses among new heroin users. Last month in Parkersburg alone, police reported five heroin overdoses in less than two weeks. One of the users died.
A similar trend occurred in the Tri-State in 2007, when more than a dozen people died from overdoses of a powerful, black tar heroin shipped from Mexico. Interviews showed several of the victims were using the heroin as a substitute for pills that had become scarce or too expensive.
Follow H-D reporter Beth Hendricks on Facebook or Twitter @BethHendricksHD.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.