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To stop opioid epidemic, the ‘problem must be acknowledged’

By MICHELLE DILLON

Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va.  — Representatives from public health agencies and concerned residents came together Monday to discuss opioid use and the public health issues it causes.

The Marion County Health Department sponsored the meeting at Noteworthy Sweets on Fairmont Avenue.

Marion County Health Administrator Lloyd White said the problem in West Virginia is there has been an increase in drug abuse, drug overdoses, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C cases, HIV cases, STDs, the presence of dirty needles and drug paraphernalia in the community and the number of drug-related deaths.

White stated reasons for why there is a need for a harm-reduction program, which includes a needle/syringe exchange program.

Drug abuse is a public health issue and the goal of public health is risk reduction, White said.

When Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was first mayor, he said he felt like the opioid epidemic was a police problem. He was getting letters, phone calls and getting stopped on the street by people asking him to do something, he said.

Since 2014, Huntington has created a rapid deployment task force and a river to jail initiative, increasing drug arrests. In one-90 day period, 200 people were arrested.

This did not stop drug dealers from coming to Huntington. The city couldn’t arrest its way out of the problem, he said. It needed to have prevention and intervention, treatment and law enforcement, he said.

The city created the office of Drug Control Policy and had to work to get everyone on the same page. The city got a grant for 2,200 doses of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. The Cabell-Huntington Health Department created a syringe exchange program.

The Marion County Health Department hopes to get a needle/syringe exchange program going in early July, White said.

Until the needle exchange program is up and running in Marion County, those who need these services can go every Wednesday form 4-6:30 p.m. to Milan Puskar Health Right Clinic in Morgantown, at 341 Spruce Street. For more information about this program call 304-292-8234.

The Marion County Health Department offers a free naloxone training at 2 p.m. every Friday. At the end of each training participants receive a free naloxone kit with two doses. For more information about the program, call 304-366-3360.

These programs are just a step in the right direction. The solution will take much more.

“We have to change the face of this,” Williams said about the drug opioid epidemic. “West Virginia is considered to be at the epicenter of the epidemic. There’s another way for us to look at it. This is what I want to challenge each of you today to embrace. We may be the epicenter, but we will be known as the epicenter of recovery. That we become known as the epicenter of where answers are found, the epicenter of solutions to this.

“I’m not saying embrace the problem. Acknowledge the problem. Acknowledge the brutal facts with an unending faith for our ability to prevail. Because this will be defeated. As this is defeated, shouldn’t Fairmont be standing on the front line saying, ‘We are finding solutions to this?’”

Executive director and health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Dr. Mike Brumage considered the effects that an adverse childhood experience (ACE) can have on a person and their likelihood to become involved with drugs.

The Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) measured incidents of emotional, physical or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; and dysfunction in families, including parents missing from the home, domestic violence, mental illness in the household, substance use in the household, and incarcerated household members, he said.

Every time a person answered “yes” to those occurrences in their childhood, a point was given, Brumage explained.

ACES found that prescription drug use increased as the ACE score increased. Each ACE score increased the liklihood of early initiation into illicit drug use by two to four times, according to information about the study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

Adverse community environments such as poverty, discrimination, community disruption, lack of opportunity, lack of economic mobility, poor housing quality, violence and other things can also contribute to drug use, Brumage said.

He said that drug users are using drugs as a coping mechanism. Addicts are asked to stop using drugs without an alternative. In order to address, these issues people need resilience factors, he said.

Brumage suggested having adults present as role models to give children a sense of psychological safety. Families need to be strengthened. Resources that help address these issues need to be preserved. We also need to change our thinking from what is wrong with this person, to what happened to this person.

Cabell-Huntington Health Department administrator Tim Hazelett said a problem must be understood before a community can be mobilized and educated about it. You have to look at the cost of starting and running a harm reduction program versus the cost of not implementing a program. He said that strategies must be developed to fight the problem as a partnership between all stakeholders involved.

Marion County resident Marilyn Mullens spoke about the effects the opioid epidemic has had on her son.

“I am a mother of a son who is a really bad drug addict,” she said. “I don’t want to point fingers, but he goes out of state to get his prescription. I know for a fact this doctor probably sees 10 clients at the same time at 9 o’ clock every morning.

“There’s no control, they just write. He does Subutex. He’s been on it for three years. There’s no weaning him off. He takes two pills a day, now he’s immune to that. And of course he’s finding other things to go to. Once again he does the needles. He has no outlet. He goes and finds whatever needles he can find so he can get his high. I’m just concerned we have no resources. As parents we don’t have the resources.”

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Walt Colley is involved with the Day Report Center in Marion County and other organizations in the county. Colley said people have been coming to Fairmont and West Virginia to sell drugs since the 1980s.

The police can’t deal with the drug problem all by themselves. Everyone has to come together as a community. Everybody knows someone that is addicted to some drug. You can’t pretend like it doesn’t exist, Colley said.

The demand for drugs is strong in West Virginia, Colley said. However, if we want to kill the drug problem, we have to kill the demand for it, he stated.

Colley said he is living proof that people can change.

“You can’t just have the mentality, ‘Well, he’s a drug addict. Throw him away, throw him in jail. It’s not our problem,’” he said. “No, no, no. You wouldn’t do your nephew, your little brother, or your aunt or your mother or your father, you don’t do your loved ones like that, just throw them away.”

Colley said when he dies he doesn’t just want to be remembered as an ex-drug dealer who tried to make a difference. He wants to be remembered as having made a difference.

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