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Berkeley County officials: Drug czar important to opioid epidemic


The Journal

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — How important is a national “drug czar” to the county level fight against the opioid crisis?

Quite important, say Berkeley County officials who work in the drug recovery field, who cited the need to have a leader at the national level who will take a proactive stand and support the Drug Enforcement Agency’s efforts to police opioid manufacturers and distributors.

“Drug czar” is the informal title of the person who oversees the U.S. drug-control policies as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Tim Czaja, director of the Berkeley County Day Report Center, which serves as an alternative program to jail for county drug offenders, said having a proactive national drug czar in Washington, D.C. is more important now than ever.

“We’re kind of playing catch up right now,” Czaja said. “We recognizing after the fact that the drug manufacturers have been pumping out extraordinary number of opiates and putting them in the streets. Does it need to be looked at more closely than it is? Yeah.”

Kevin Knowles, community recovery services coordinator for Berkeley County Recovery Resource Center, said having a point person to oversee policy at the national level is critical.

“It’s very important, one, because you will have a national level person who will be concentrating on that alone,” Knowles said. “It gives an opportunity to have one person and one department focusing on this issue alone, so they can bring the best possible scenario to move forward.”

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Penn., removed his name from consideration for drug czar, in the wake of news stories in the Washington Post and on CBS’s news show “60 Minutes.” that depicted the revolving door between the DEA and drug distributors.

According to the investigation, lobbyists with previous experience in the DEA pushed for a bill, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016, which limited the agency’s ability to go after drug distributors who shipped narcotics.

In response, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said President Donald Trump’s choice for the country’s next drug czar should ideally be someone with a medical background, have first-hand experience with the opioid crisis and come from beyond the Washington, D.C. political beltway.

“We don’t want this opioid epidemic to fly under the radar,” Knowles said. “We need someone there that has the passion and who has the knowledge and experience to move forward in a positive direction.”

Knowles cited former national drug czar Michael Botticelli, who held the position under President Barack Obama’s administration and was the first person in substance-abuse recovery to hold the national drug czar position.

“First-hand experience and knowledge is always better — at least in my world it is,” Knowles said. “We at find at the RRC that we get more done with people with substance abuse disorders are people who are their peers – people who have gone through what they’re going through.”

“He (Botticelli) felt it and went through addiction himself,” Knowles said. “It should be something of this sort at any given time.”

According to Czaja, any drug czar chosen needs to be more than arms length from the drug companies that will be monitored by that office.

“It needs to the right person,” Czaja said. “It certainly can’t be someone who has ties to these pharmaceutical companies. Good God, there’s a whole lot of money that changes hands in this sort of thing. It needs to be someone is not affiliated with those companies and is looking to make profit in any kind of way.”

According to Knowles, a strong drug enforcement leadership is essential at all three government levels.

“If you don’t have somebody in those positions in those places of power, then you’re just spinning your wheels,” Knowles said.

On the state level, Knowles pointed to Jim Johnson, appointed the state’s first director of the newly formed Office of Drug Control Policy in August. A veteran of the Huntington police force, Johnson was appointed by West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary Bill J. Crouch in August.

Before his appointment, Johnson was director of Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy in Cabell-Huntington County.

“To bring that experience and knowledge to the state level is huge,” Knowles said.

Berkeley County broke drug enforcement ground in late 2015 when it created Knowles’ position as recovery resources coordinator.

“It was the only county in the state at the time that had created a position that actually addresses the drug recovery issue on a daily basis– working with all the players to find solutions, and to be able move forward in a positive direction,” Knowles said. “The negative part is that people are dying and we need to try to reduce that death rate, and that overdose rate.”

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