This week from Charleston
This week I attended Senator Capito’s Drug Prevention Summit in Martinsburg. In addition to the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District, Bill Ihlenfeld, we were fortunate to hear from Michael Gottlieb, the National Director of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who happens to live in Shepherdstown.
The good news from the summit is that Berkeley County was designated last September as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, by the Office of National Drug Control. This designation will bring additional federal resources to fight drug trafficking in Berkeley County. The flip side of the designation is that it is proof that we have a very serious problem.
The problem is heroin. I don’t know anyone in the Eastern Panhandle who has not been affected by heroin, which is a growing problem statewide. I have written about this before, but a large part of the source of people becoming addicted is the over-prescribing of opioids by doctors. Patients eventually become addicted and then, when they are unable to afford paying for prescriptions or can no longer get prescriptions, they turn to heroin because it is cheaper and has a nearly identical effect. West Virginia is truly in crisis with prescription drug abuse: for every 100 West Virginians, there are 138 prescriptions for opioids. As one of the speakers at the forum said, “the gateway drug to heroin is in your medicine cabinet.”
Our Eastern Panhandle problem is fueled by the heroin trade in Baltimore. As an FBI agent put it: “We are so close to the dragon’s lair–that is Baltimore.”
I learned that there are people who literally drive round trip every single day to Baltimore to buy heroin to bring it back to the Eastern Panhandle to sell. Often these people do this to pay for and obtain their own heroin to treat their addiction. I-81 has been labeled the “Heroin Highway” from Chambersburg to Winchester, fueled by I-70 from Baltimore.
One of best things to come from the summit was the very vocal call for more resources including changes in Medicaid funding. The call was reiterated for an in-patient mental health and addiction treatment center along with the need for changes in treatment. Almost everyone in the room agreed that the problem is complex and dangerous, and that prevention and treatment are necessary components. Prescription drug abuse and heroin is a both a public health and a public safety problem and as someone suggested at the forum: “We can’t incarcerate our way out of this.”
The Legislature is actually slightly ahead of the curve in adapting laws to deal with the crisis. This past year, we passed two measures to deal with the addiction issue: One is a pilot project to deal with a new method of treating addiction and the second authorizes first responders to carry naloxone to revive overdose victims. Most importantly, over the last three years, the legislature authorized that all pain clinics be licensed and regulated. The legislature then funded the oversight of all pain clinics. Just this week, two clinics were ordered shut down for failure to comply with state regulations. This is just the beginning. We need to keep adapting and prioritize treatment funding in the Eastern Panhandle.