The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 7, 2013

Drug scourge to receive attention from lawmakers

CHARLESTON — No one can argue against the chilling statistics.

One-fifth of all pregnant women in West Virginia have a drug issue that figures into their newborn.

Deaths triggered by overdoses of opioids, the world’s oldest known drugs, now outnumber those caused by traffic accidents.

An estimated 40,000 people in this state are addicted to some form of controlled substances and aren’t getting treated.

House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, a pharmacist for 35 years, is passionate about the drug problem and has been sounding the clarion call for several years for his fellow lawmakers to combat it.

“Yes, it very much is a big issue for me and will be as long as I stay in the Legislature,” says Perdue.

While budgetary constraints and the prospects of even more belt-tightening, along with a highly critical education audit, figure to take center stage, Perdue says the incoming new Legislature can ill afford to put the drug problem on the back burner.

“We’ve got to look at programs we have in place and make sure the dollars we spend actually achieve the results we want,” Perdue said.

“We’ve got to be able to do more in prevention. We’ve got to do more in treatment and we’ve got to do more in recovery. Does it necessarily mean we need more dollars? I don’t know. I know if we use what we’ve got more effectively, it will make a difference.”

Perdue says the state must not only plow money, if needed, into more programs but also invest time, effort, concern and a collaborative agreement.

“It’s a full-time investment of all kinds,” he said.

Perdue estimates some 5,000 residents check into methadone centers each day but the help there merely keeps them at the status quo.

“In terms of long-term beds available for somebody who wants to overcome a narcotics addiction, we’ve only got about 300 beds,” the health chairman said.

“We know the need is in the thousands, the tens of thousands.”

One idea advanced by Perdue is to make the prescription drug naltrexone, a receptor that serves as an antidote if one has overdosed, more accessible to first responders and family members.

“If you get to somebody in the right time frame, you can keep them from dying,” the veteran lawmaker said.

“Allowing for broader access to that would be a really good thing.”

In his lengthy career as a pharmacist, Perdue says he has witnessed many an innocent patient get hooked on drugs, never intending to abuse them.

“I saw people that were everyday folks,” he said.

“They got started on a drug because they had pain. It got control of them and their physician didn’t recognize it and didn’t do anything about it. They gradually devolved into that terrible well that you can’t climb out by yourself. If you see that up close a few times — and I saw it a number of times — if you see that up close and how that human beings can be so devoid of any understanding of right or wrong, once they’re in the throes of that addiction — they really don’t care. It’s just so demeaning to the human race to see what a drug can do. It brings it down to the animal level. And nothing stands in their way. Family, life and death mean nothing.”

Put simply, all life means to the addict is the next fix.

Perdue feels many harbor a simplistic approach, that curing the problem is a mere matter of putting the abusers behind bars.

“It’s one thing to put them in jail, but if you don’t offer them a real chance of recovery when they come out, they’re going to fall back into that same cycle,” he said.

“And threatening them with jail doesn’t impress them. Threatening them with not having the drug impresses them for a while, until they get into a position where they can get the drug again. You can’t beat drug abuse into submission. You just can’t. It’s got to be treated into submission.”

All of society is vulnerable to the drug epidemic, as evidenced by the increased number of property crimes and robberies by the hooked people needing money to buy narcotics, or highway accidents caused by impaired drivers. What’s more, the drug culture is causing ominous waves in the economy. Many employers have found it difficult to find workers able to pass a drug screen.

“We’ve got thousands of jobs — and people aren’t aware of this — thousands available in this country, probably thousands in West Virginia, at least hundreds, where if a guy could pass a drug test, he could get that job and have a meaningful existence and is supplying his community with his best efforts,” Perdue said.

“One of the worst things about all of this, if we don’t do something about recovering the people who are already addicted, the number of people left available to pay for the bad things that happen because of that is going to keep going down.”

For instance, if one-fifth of the population is now abusing drugs, Perdue says the percentage is likely to keep rising, and that means fewer people are left to provide money to support law enforcement to keep them protected.

Perdue says the state cannot afford to ignore making an investment to reverse the ugly trend.

“We just have to make sure it’s the right investment, and that we invest not only our money, but our efforts in making sure it works,” he said.

Even a recovery program, if executed diligently in jails and prisons, loses its effectiveness if the released lawbreaker cannot fit back into society, Perdue said.

“When they come out and they’ve got a felony on their record, how do you get them out of that cycle that got them there in the right place?” he asked.

“You need to make some meaningful effort to try to get them a job or get them trained to take a job, and we don’t do that. This is a nationwide issue. We don’t have enough money in the United States to put everybody who’s addicted to controlled substances in jail. We just don’t. But we might have the resources to get a large portion of them into recovery and get them into the mainstream again. That’s the kind of programs that it takes to beat this thing.”

And no one should expect a speedy resolution to the drug culture, Perdue cautioned.

“If we started today, doing all the good things, and did it the right way, I don’t think we get out of this hole for 10 years. But then, once we get there, we’ve got to keep going.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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