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Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, from left, speaks during a luncheon sponsored by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce at Black Knight Country Club Wednesday. Listening in the background are Victor Flannagan, chamber board president; Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, and Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner.

Wholesale drug screens in West Virginia’s education system was endorsed Wednesday by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, prompting a spirited talk among regional lawmakers and business leaders during a luncheon at Black Knight Country Club.

“We need to send a message to young people that we just don’t accept that in our culture,” said Mick Bates, former chairman of the chamber’s board.

Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner boldly predicted a swift end to the prescription drug abuse sub-culture in southern West Virginia, but imparted a grim warning: it will be replaced by heroin, since it most closely resembles the effect of opioids.

In every jurisdiction where pain-killers have been brought under control, the sheriff pointed out, heroin abuse has jumped dramatically.

“That’s what’s going to happen here,” he said. “That’s just how it’s going to work.

“We already have the protocols and laws in place to fight the heroin problem.”

Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, said he favors drug testing of schoolhouse employees and students, but acknowledged the cost of implementing the screens would be a major question before the Legislature.

“It would be a great idea for our schools to be able to be drug-free zones in every way,” the Beckley resident said.

“How in the world do you make that happen financially? That’s a question I think that has to be settled.”

It was pointed out that a drug testing program in Putnam County for students in extra-curricular activities ran up a bill of about $50,000.

In defense of the cost, some at the luncheon said the money eventually would be worth it, once the drug epidemic is reversed and society no longer is coughing up dollars to pay for the addicted.

Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, an obstetrician, told of newborns hooked on drugs ingested by their mothers, saying it costs about $230,000 to detox each one.

“That cost is money that could go to other programs and things,” he said.

Proposed testing of those on the public dole — a frequent matter before the Legislature — also came into play.

Ellington plans to re-offer a bill that would require drug testing of teenagers when they apply for a driver’s license.

“They’re motivated to be drug free,” he said, in support of his bill.

What’s more, he said, any youngster who becomes disinclined to seek an operator’s card would “raise a red flag for parents. If they’re not pursuing a driver’s license, what’s going on here?”

Ellen Taylor, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, endorsed this concept, which has failed every time it was proposed.

“Businesses do drug testing all the time,” Taylor said.

“Why should your tax dollars go to people that don’t have to be drug tested and get paid?”

Beckley Councilman Chris Hall said he has long advocated drug testing in the schools, particularly among those in extra-curricular activities.

“We’re not looking to be punitive toward these students,” Hall said.

“What we want to do is give them a reason to tell their friends, no. Hopefully, we can prevent a few kids from getting hooked and the impacts of that as it comes down the road.”

Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, an emergency room physician, lamented the reversal of an old law that had required doctors to exercise more discretion in prescribing pain medications.

“Now, you’re telling doctors if someone comes in and says, ‘My ear hurts that bad,’ and if this doesn’t do it, you have to get more and more narcotics,” Staggers said.

“We just reversed that. That was just this year. It was the only time I can tell you since grade school that I cried in public.”

Staggers said common sense must come into play when patients are given pain killers.

If a patient is stricken with cancer, she said, “They should back up a big old morphine tank and just let you use all you want to. For the rest of us, the pain won’t kill you.”

Another lawmaker, Sen. Bill Laird, also D-Fayette, and a former sheriff, called for increased rehabilitation of addicts, saying, “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

While some are critical of physicians, Tanner said they often are accosted by addicts, and not just verbally. In fact, he said, deputies are called to emergency rooms seven or eight times nightly to escort an abusive addict away after threatening doctors, and such abuse is manifested physically and emotionally, and at times against their families.

Tanner said a death occurs each day in southern West Virginia due to drug overdosing, and 76 percent of the abuse entails opioids.

Changes are needed to combat the problem, and one is to expand monitoring of the medical profession by the doctors themselves.

“No policeman has any business looking over the shoulders of any doctor, saying this is right or this is wrong,” Raleigh’s sheriff said.

“No control board has any business looking over any doctor saying this is right or this is wrong. You need doctors monitoring doctors. They’re the only ones that understand what needs to be done.”

Tanner said drug abuse is so rampant that emergency rooms are flooded with addicts, demanding weekend fixes.

“They’re inundated to the point I wonder how they service those who really do need their attention,” the sheriff said.

Before the drug war was covered, the Chamber riveted its attention on a less dramatic education issue — its call for 180 days of instruction.

“If we can’t get that done, we should pack up and go home,” Bates intoned.

Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, part of a select group of House members working on the education audit that highly criticized West Virginia’s system, updated the Chamber on the panel’s work, noting next week’s meeting will include officials of the Chamber and the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

“It’s about reform and efficiency,” Perry said of the move to improve the education system, noting the audit recommends that $90 million in the state board’s budget be redirected.

Another retired educator, Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, said she supports a removal of the cap on Promise Scholarship, saying students need to be given opportunities to advance their education.

As for the dropout rate, Sumner said a stigma has been attached to students who elect to enroll in vocational education and that she agrees with current thinking that it should be returned to the middle schools level and be available on the campus of high schools.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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