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Editorial: Advisory council submits sound strategies to curb substance abuse

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

An advisory council formed in 2011 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to study the extensive substance abuse problem in West Virginia has issued a series of recommendations that should help reduce the number of people who are affected.

Now, it's up to the state's policy makers, including the governor and the legislature, to take substantive action in the months and years ahead.

The council, in its report completed last month, spells out the severity of the problem, estimating that 152,000 West Virginians, or about one of every 12 residents, need treatment for substance abuse problems. It all amounts to a crisis of damaged or ruined lives, increased crime and harm to the state's economy because of a potential work force that is riddled with people who can't pass a drug test. And the crisis won't go away on its own.

The advisory council's recommendations focus on logical steps. One is to establish several treatment centers and detoxification units around the state, some dedicated to serving women and one in particular for treating children and adolescents. It calls for additional training and support for "recovery coaches" whose mission is to help those who have been addicted return to productive lives. Another recommendation focuses on the logistics of drug take back programs and disposing of unwanted medications. And the council urges additional funding for prevention coalitions, which play a crucial role in local communities to raise awareness and educate the public.

On the legislative side, the council urges several policy changes. One is to allow local law enforcement agencies to get involved in fighting underage drinking in bars, a duty by law that is now left strictly to the Alcohol Beverage Control Administration. Other changes are aimed at limiting abusers' ability to use public assistance money in cash transactions to buy drugs, establishing a certification system for recovery coaches and expanding Medicaid support for certain intervention and peer recovery services.

All of these initiatives, particularly establishing treatment centers and increasing money for more community-based services, won't come without a price. That's why the council suggested that more funding could come through increases in alcohol and tobacco taxes and/or by using a portion of the state government's rainy day fund.

Those funding ideas already have been shot down by Tomblin, who campaigned last year on a pledge of lower taxes and is protective of maintaining a healthy rainy day fund.

But the governor maintains he's committed to tackling the state's substance abuse problem, and his office points to $7.5 million he allocated to fight the problem this year for treatment centers and other initiatives.

We trust he maintains that commitment in the years ahead, and that the legislature follows suit. According to the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center, the financial toll of alcohol and drug abuse in the state amounts to more than $1.6 billion a year. Even if higher taxes and the rainy day fund are taken out of the funding picture, it's clear that the state needs to invest more now to combat substance abuse to limit the continuing long-term costs.

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