Officials discuss state drug crisis
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local and federal authorities gathered to discuss solutions to an old problem that's recently resurfaced.
Officials have pointed out the link between the prescription drug epidemic and heroin over and over again.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the challenges faced in West Virginia with the prescription drug epidemic were unlike any other the area had faced before because authorities were dealing with the abuse of legal drugs, but in the wake of prescription drugs an old foe is making a comeback.
"There can be no mistake that the prescription drug crisis and heroin upsurge that we're seeing go hand in hand," Goodwin said during a roundtable discussion Wednesday evening at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse in Charleston. "They are intimately related to one another."
He said the problem with heroin is that the purity of the drug can fluctuate and lead to serious issues for the abuser, including overdosing and death.
The panel consisted of law enforcement, doctors, lawmakers and those who specialize in rehabilitation.
Heroin seizures are up, according to law enforcement in Charleston and Huntington, but as Skip Holbrook, Huntington chief of police, said, "We know we can't arrest our way out of this problem."
Huntington police seized more than 5,500 grams of heroin in 2013, "an incredible increase for a community of our size," Holbrook said. Huntington police have seen a "tremendous" surge in heroin seizures in the last 18 months, he said.
The Metro Drug Unit, which serves Charleston and its neighboring towns and cities, didn't participate in the discussion but previously reported a 405 percent increase in heroin seizures from 2012 and 2013. In 2012 the unit seized 566 grams. In 2013 it seized 2.3 kilograms (or about 5 pounds).
Capt. Tim Bledsoe, who commands the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said opiate abuse is a problem statewide, but that heroin seems to be spreading from urban areas into rural communities. He said out-of-state dealers are bringing a multitude of drugs, including pills and heroin, into West Virginia.
Holbrook said officers have learned about the importance of treatment and education.
Goodwin said people often don't seek help until they've hit rock bottom or if they encounter a major life change like parenthood.
Matt Boggs, project director of the Healing Place in Huntington, spoke about peer counseling in overcoming opioid addiction. The Healing Place serves men trying to overcome addiction without medication.
Boggs, a graduate of the program, said peer counseling works because it breaks down barriers and gives the addict someone to relate to.
"We are seeing huge success," he said.
Boggs said the program, which has seen 300 men since it opened in 2011, has 65 graduates, 65 percent of which have remained sober.
The other approach is to treat the addiction with medication like methadone or Suboxone.
Dr. Carl "Rolly" Sullivan, vice-chairman and director of Addictions Programs at West Virginia University's School of Medicine, spent his career working with alcoholics and drug addicts. In two years he saw his practice shift from 90 percent alcohol to 90 percent opioids.
He saw opioid addiction as the "cruelest disease" because many suffered relapse after relapse.
Methadone came along first, he said, which helped patients short term, but he said Suboxone, a partial opioid, was a "game changer."
"When used correctly it works really well," Sullivan said. "When used correctly it really can be helpful, but when used incorrectly it becomes just another drug on the street."
Goodwin said many addicts don't know where to go or who to call for help.
Kathy Paxton, director of the Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse at the Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, agreed.
When she and her colleagues travel the state, they found no shortage of treatment options, but she said that those who needed it didn't know how to access it.
"We have folks in this state who aren't used to having to work with social services or even work with any of the treatment services in this area," Paxton said. "We need to do a better job of marketing the availability of the services we have and we need to decrease the stigma.
"Folks are fearful to go to treatment."
Those seeking help with their addictions can go to the agency's website at www.bhhf.wv.gov.
Sullivan said in dealing with opiate addicts that the addiction leads their lives.
"I used to think greed trumped everything but I was wrong," he said. "Addiction trumps everything.
"We do have some treatment options. We could make a difference but it is going to take an effort."
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4850.