By WENDY HOLDREN
CHARLESTON — “Is what we’re doing working?”
It’s a question a Cabell County delegate has been asking herself and others involved in West Virginia’s fight against the ever-growing opioid epidemic.
After consulting with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and officials, Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, has sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills this legislative session aimed at tackling all angles of the state’s drug problem.
A handful of bills (HB2579, HB2448, HB2533, HB2565) focus on increasing penalties for transporting or trafficking drugs into West Virginia — an issue with which Huntington residents are all too familiar.
Drugs are being pipelined to the city from Detroit and Ohio, Sobonya said. Over the summer, Huntington experienced 27 overdoses in a matter of a few hours. A man from Akron, Ohio, has since pleaded guilty to distributing the heroin that caused the overdoses.
Instead of facing one to 15 years in prison for transporting a Schedule I or Schedule II Narcotic Controlled Substance, HB2579 would increase the penalty to 10 to 30 years. Penalties for other controlled substances would increase as well in the bill, which has been passed by the House Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse. The bill now moves to House Judiciary.
“This bill stands out as one of the more strict in terms of penalties for transportation into the state,” Sobonya said. “It’s higher than the standard possession by far.”
Another related bill, HB2329, is making its way through the House to prohibit the production, manufacture or possession of fentanyl, an opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. According to laboratory tests, the Schedule II drug was mixed with the heroin that caused the Huntington overdoses.
Testing the drugs can be a roadblock in prosecution, however, due to the backlog of cases at the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab. Testing delays also cause financial implications — if an offender is unable to make bond, he or she will remain incarcerated until trial.
Sobonya said she hopes funding for the crime lab will become a priority, but she has also introduced a bill that could help alleviate the burden counties are experiencing with their jail bills.
HB2466 would change the way the cost of incarcerating inmates at regional jails is collected — the state, county and municipality would share the expense at a rate of 50 percent, 45 percent and 5 percent, respectively. The bill would also make the cost of incarcerating a person for less than 24 hours one-half the amount charged for a full day.
County commissions throughout the state are struggling with their regional jail bills costs. Some officials attribute the growing cost to the increase in drug-related crimes — from possession and manufacturing to burglaries and home invasions.
“It’s a bill I introduced after a conversation with my county commissioners about their inability to keep paying this,” Sobonya said. “It’s a creative way to help spread the cost of paying for offenders.”
But she’s not confident the bill in its current form will pass due to the state’s current budget issues.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, the Committee on Health and Human Resources, and the new Select Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse, Sobonya is in a unique position to offer input in the three committees that deal with substance abuse.
“Besides creating an atmosphere for job creation, my focus has been on this addiction problem,” she said. “West Virginia has the most drug addicted population in the country. It’s such a depressing problem. Employers struggle to find a drug-free workforce. There are incarceration costs and the toll on families to see their loved ones suffer. Children are taken out of homes. The foster care system is overburdened because of all the drugs in the home. It’s become a crisis all over our state.”
The multitude of bills focus on different elements of the epidemic, but they share the same ultimate goal — breaking the cycle of addiction.
In gearing up for the current legislative session, Sobonya asked law enforcement officers and prosecutors what tools they need to fight drug crimes on the front line. They noted growing instances of organized crime in the Barboursville area — individuals are stealing items from retail stores, returning the items for a store gift card, then pawning the gift cards for drug money.
The Senate just passed SB202, which limits pawnbrokers from purchasing or receiving gift cards as a pawn. The bill is now working its way through the House. Another related bill, HB2367, establishes a criminal offense for organized retail crime.
As for addiction, Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, has introduced HB2620, a bill to create the West Virginia Drug Overdose Monitoring Act — a central repository of drug overdose information. One goal of the bill is to help get those who have overdosed multiple times into treatment facilities.
Presently, however, Sobonya said the state does not offer enough treatment options. She has introduced HB2457, which creates the West Virginia Addictions Treatment and Recovery Fund by collecting and transferring 5 cents per ounce of the uniform price of alcoholic liquors sold in this state to the fund.
Another bill, HB2422, creates the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Act, which would allow citizens to lobby private organizations for additional funding for addiction awareness and prevention purposes that are not currently covered. If passed, the bill will allow the Department of Health and Human Resources to allocate money from the fund for prevention education and treatment with at least 20 percent going to prevention.
Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, sponsored the bill in honor of Brown, a lifelong friend who fatally overdosed in April 2014.
“We’ve had four or five from my graduating class that passed away,” Robinson said. “It’s an issue that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.”
A bill sponsored by Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, HB2387, focuses on prevention measures the next generation. The bill requires the West Virginia State Board of Education to prescribe a comprehensive drug awareness and prevention program.
“It’s a cycle,” Sobonya said. “It’s what they know… Schools are there to educate, but we have to have kids learning what drugs can do. We have to break that cycle of addiction somehow.”
Other drug-related bills being considered in the House include:
HB2003 creates a new felony offense for a drug delivery that results in the death of another person and providing a felony criminal penalty.
HB2470 establishes a felony for knowingly housing drug traffickers.
HB2541 creates a felony offense of conspiracy to commit violations of Uniform Controlled Substances Act
HB2456 requires the state Supreme Court of Appeals to maintain a searchable database of all arrests and convictions to help track recidivism.
HB2083 increases felony criminal penalties for exposing children to methamphetamine manufacturing.
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