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We congratulate Dr. Raul Gupta, former health officer for the state of West Virginia and former medical director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, on his Senate confirmation last week as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Gupta is the first medical doctor appointed to the post, and having someone who spent nearly a decade in West Virginia installed to the position is beneficial for a number of reasons. President Biden nominated Gupta for the job in July.

Gupta, who came to West Virginia in 2009 to serve with the KCHD and spent three years as the commissioner and public health officer for the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, knows the drug crisis in West Virginia — which has the highest overdose rates in the nation — in a way few national public officials do. He’s uniquely qualified to bring aid and solutions to the state hit harder than any other by the addiction crisis that began with painkiller pill mills and continued with the proliferation of heroin and fentanyl.

Even with his unique insight, Gupta faces a tough task. While the substances have changed, addiction remains a multi-faceted problem. There’s the drug use, but there’s also the barriers those convicted of drug offenses face to re-entering society, the contribution to the state’s foster child crisis and the threat to public health. Sharing intravenous needles has led to skyrocketing hepatitis C rates in the state, along with HIV outbreaks, including one in Kanawha County so alarming that it caught the attention of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the creation of drug courts and efforts to treat addicts as people in need of recovery instead of criminals to be jailed has made some headway against the problem, it hasn’t solved it. Indeed, many parts of the state have rejected some of these efforts, especially pertaining to harm reduction programs that offer syringe exchanges. This year, the state Legislature and the city of Charleston passed new laws establishing standards that make syringe exchanges virtually impossible to operate.

Although Gupta supported suspending the KCHD harm reduction program in Kanawha County in 2018 over operating concerns (the county ended up shuttering it instead) he generally sees these types of programs as key to battling substance use, citing evidence that they cut down disease rates, provide a gateway to recovery and are not shown to create more drug use.

It’ll be a tough sell in the state he used to call home. Gupta surely knows this. He left West Virginia to take a position with the March of Dimes in 2018, right as the major shift in public opinion and perception of harm reduction programs in Kanawha County and other parts of the state was gaining momentum.

If he feels these programs are necessary, he’ll not only need the evidence on his side, but a plan that will alleviate some of the more basic fears and concerns about such programs.

West Virginia finally has someone in a position of real power who understands the ins and outs of a problem so widespread it’s a fundamental roadblock to bettering quality of life and the economy in West Virginia. Gupta can’t solve it on his own, but here’s hoping he can be part of a solution that not only stops the bleeding but finally turns the tide in this state.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail also published this editorial today, Nov. 3:

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