By LACIE PIERSON
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday approved two bills that focused on different approaches to curbing substance abuse in the Mountain State.
Members of the House approved one bill that will establish a felony crime to manufacture, deliver, possess or otherwise bring fentanyl into West Virginia through the Committee Substitute for House Bill 2329.
Members also approved Committee Substitute for House Bill 2620 that would establish the West Virginia Overdose Monitoring Act, which is meant to help the state collect data about overdoses in an effort to gain federal grant money to support substance abuse treatment and prevention programs in the state.
Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, was the lead sponsor of the bill that makes the fentanyl felony crimes, which, depending upon the amount of fentanyl in a given crime, could carry a sentence between two and 45 years in jail.
House Judiciary Chairman Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, cited the day of overdoses in Huntington, Aug. 15, 2016, when 26 overdoses were reported in a six-hour time frame, when he introduced the bill Thursday.
Authorities later determined a 27th overdose, which was fatal, had taken place in the same timespan.
Bruce Lamar “Benz” Griggs, 22, of Akron, Ohio, pleaded guilty in January to distributing up to 13 grams of heroin that was mixed with fentanyl and carfentanil and distributed in Huntington that day.
Fentanyl is an opioid used as part of anesthesia to help prevent pain after surgery or other medical procedures. It is about 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Carfentanil, an elephant sedative, is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
Griggs faces up to 20 years in prison, three years’ supervision, a $1 million fine and the requirement to pay restitution to the victims when he’s sentenced in April.
Rohrbach said Aug. 15 not only was embarrassing to Huntington, but it also put a huge strain on the city’s first responders.
“It’s also happened since then in Calgary, Syracuse, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Sacramento,” Rohrbach said.
“This is truly an epidemic consuming our country right now. What’s the cause of this epidemic? It’s the fentanyl mixed with heroin. These are sophisticated criminals. They’re out and wreaking havoc in my community, in our state and in our country.”
House members also approved the Overdose Monitoring Act, which will establish the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy.
The office will be part of the Division of Justice and Community Affairs through the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
The purpose of the office will be to provide administrative support, research, coordination, planning and management of funding relating to the prevention, prosecution, reduction and treatment of substance abuse in the Mountain State.
In introducing the bill, Shott said the state currently does not have an agency tracking overdose statistics or related crimes, and the Overdose Monitoring Act would do that. The bill, if signed into law, also will require first responders to report overdoses to the office, and it will require prosecutors to report drug-related crimes to the office.
Jim Johnson is the director of the Huntington Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, which is, in large part, the model office for its state counterpart.
Johnson served on one of Gov. Jim Justice’s transition teams, and he said a statewide Office of Drug Control Policy was one of the biggest recommendations his team made.
He said Thursday that Huntington’s office received some seed money when it was established in 2014, but the office since has been able to function solely on federal grant money.
“We know this is not a problem for Huntington,” Johnson said.
“It’s a problem for the state. What we did was begin to put the information together, and fortunately and unfortunately it made Huntington look like it was the worst place in terms of substance abuse. What we’ve found is in Huntington it is a problem, but it’s not the worst in the state. We’ve all got this problem.”
The collection of data also will help officials in communities throughout the state see what kind of treatment and prevention services are needed in their areas, and they can use that data to get federal funding to establish those things.
“We know our youngest overdose here last year was 11 years old,” Johnson said.
“We know through our Harm Reduction Program that people who are IV drug users begin to experiment on average at age 12. We can’t have intervention starting when they’re freshmen in high school. … I know I’m repeating myself here, but we know what we have to do. It’s prevention. It’s treatment. It’s law enforcement. The long-term solution to this problem is prevention. We have to solve the problem by making sure our young people don’t start.”
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