West Virginia’s deadly addiction to opioid drugs gained national attention in 2015, and as the state looks toward a new year my office seeks to combat this epidemic with a combination of enforcement, education and prevention.
The road to West Virginia’s current epidemic has been evolving for years. It’s a path that began with years of prescription painkiller abuse, and when those prices skyrocketed many addicts switched to heroin as a cheaper, more available option to stave off withdrawal.
Unlike pills, however, heroin comes with no formulated dose. Unfortunately, every batch of heroin consists of a different purity and mix with other drugs.
This amounts to a game of Russian roulette with addicts overdosing at an alarming rate. It’s a statewide problem killing West Virginians at a rate of 34 deaths per 100,000 people – more than twice the national average of 13.4 deaths.
Such an epidemic demands attention at every level of government and throughout the private sector. Indeed, we must do much more to coordinate the efforts of everyone involved in this fight.
Since taking office as West Virginia’s attorney general, reducing substance abuse has been a priority within my office. We continue to make major strides on multiple fronts.
Most recently, I joined with U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II in cross-designating two attorneys from my office to help U.S. Attorney Ihlenfeld prosecute drug trafficking across northern West Virginia, including areas of Clarksburg, Wheeling, Morgantown and Martinsburg.
We recognize that partnerships with law enforcement organizations are critical to easing heroin’s grip on West Virginia. Our partnership with U.S. Attorney Ihlenfeld specifically offers increased flexibility to identify and respond to drug traffickers, while offering a collaborative atmosphere for training to aid in the prosecution of dealers and those whose drugs cause overdoses.
This first-of-its-kind partnership also will enhance prevention and youth education initiatives already underway statewide.
That effort includes my office dedicating a consumer protection representative to travel the state as a substance abuse education advocate. Our staff delivers drug presentations to middle school health classes, along with other clubs, civic groups, afterschool programs and senior adult organizations to warn everyone about the perils of substance abuse.
So far, our substance abuse education advocate has made 73 presentations in 19 counties. We aim to touch the lives of countless West Virginians and will accelerate these presentations in 2016.
We also remain committed to prevention with expansion of our Dispose Responsibly of Prescriptions program. The DRoP program, launched in 2014, facilitates the safe disposal of prescription drugs in collaboration with the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission and its Department of Health and Human Resources, along with the West Virginia Medical Association.
Reducing the supply of unwanted prescription drugs is critical, as the Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that nearly one-third of children 12 and over who use drugs for the first time, begin with a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose.
The 2015 calendar year witnessed additional progress toward our goal of establishing permanent drug drop boxes to every county in West Virginia. To date, DRoP sites have been announced for Shepherdstown and Paden City, along with locations further south in Boone, Jackson and Roane counties.
Two more DRoP sites will be announced in the near future.
In the coming year, consumer representatives will have pamphlets containing treatment information for each county. This will be in addition to another handout that provides valuable knowledge and educates consumers as to the proper storage and disposal of prescription medication.
Development of a best practices toolkit could also make a major difference. Our office is collaborating with groups involved in the prescription drug supply chain in an effort to enforce the safe and appropriate use of opioids when treating patients, while minimizing the risk of addiction and substance abuse.
I also serve on the Substance Abuse Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General, and I am working to identify best practices that have succeeded in other states.
While our office is aggressively fighting the state’s drug problem, the Attorney General’s Office cannot address this issue alone. Quite frankly, we lack some of the legal authority to do everything that is needed. At each level of government we must invest substantial time and resources to eliminate addiction and its deadly consequences.
The future of West Virginia is at stake. But I’m confident that, working together, we can heal this affliction and help West Virginia reach her full potential.
Patrick Morrisey serves as attorney general for West Virginia.