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Addiction task force spreading across West Virginia

Journal photo by Ron Agnir Barbed wired and razor wire stretch along the perimeter fence at the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg.
Journal photo by Ron Agnir
Barbed wired and razor wire stretch along the perimeter fence at the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Heroin stories aren’t hard to find, just ask.

One man recalled his “utter shock” after walking into a restroom at work, only to find a coworker openingly shooting heroin – complete with a tourniquet on his arm -while standing near the urinals.

Another woman was saddened when a friend posted on Facebook about having lost her son – turns out, the young man had been lost to heroin addiction, even though he’d not yet died of an overdose.

A mother still vividly recalls when it became clear her son was a heroin dealer – the pair were walking down a local street and virtually everyone they met knew him by name, something he had a hard time explaining.

“I’d heard some talk about a dealer who had the same name as my son. But walking down the sidewalk, the lightbulb really came on,” she said.

And it’s not only in this area, because other counties are experiencing similar heroin and addiction problems, especially those in the state’s Northern Panhandle, where community leaders have decided to take action together, said William J. Ihlenfeld, U.S. Attorney for the Northern Division of West Virginia who oversees 32 counties in this post.

It’s an exciting time because so many people are ready to talk about heroin and make a difference, he said.

“A big part of what we’ve needed to do is get on the same page, by agreeing that heroin is a problem and it is a problem that everyone needs to be concerned about – as well as do something about it. No one can afford to ignore it anymore,” he said in a telephone interview from his Wheeling office.

“When I first came into this position, I met with the (United States) Attorney General and he challenged me in a special way – to be a community problem solver, not just a prosecutor and that’s really how I see my role,” Ihlenfeld said.

As a result, the Ohio Valley Addiction Action Plan debuted in December and represents a new approach because it is already comprehensive, but can also meet changing needs, Ihlenfeld said, adding that this collaborative effort began last summer.

That’s not the only good news, however, because this same approach is adaptable and will soon be coming to other areas – including the Eastern Panhandle this spring, he said.

It’s set to move into the north central portion of the state next week, when leaders who will head up various subcommittees – topics include medical, education, business/legislation, law enforcement, mental health and mental health/substance abuse treatment, to name a few – will be publicly announced, Ihlenfeld said.

He anticipates the movement will come to the Eastern Panhandle in the spring.

Officials are learning along the way, knowledge that will benefit communities involved in future efforts, such as the need to include local neonatal intensive care units because of the growing number of heroin-addicted mothers and babies, he said.

That could be an important addition since the local area is also experiencing this kind of increase, Ihlenfeld said.

Innovative ideas area also being incorporated, including using middle and high-school students to help write and produce public service messages to be used by area media outlets.

“If we want to get to kids, we need to know what they’re thinking and how to best get this message across to them,” he said.


Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty knows the ups and downs of trying to fight illegal drug use. For example, he’s happy there’s no longer a “virtual open-air drug market” like the one that used to exist near the board of education’s central office.

“Back in the day, all you had to do was pull up to a stop sign and people would be trying to sell you drugs,” Dougherty said.

“Things are different in other ways, however, because we now have more people going back and forth to Baltimore to get heroin. And there’s even one place where people can take stolen goods – instead of pawning things locally – and they will tell them how much the items are worth, and then pay them in the drug,” he said.

Overall, Dougherty remains optimistic because so many more people are now concerned about heroin addiction and overdose deaths.

“It’s definitely not just something that happens to someone from across the tracks, and it’s a good sign that people are now talking about their own experiences or those of family members. I think this could be the beginning of a more united community effort to address the heroin problem, because it’s going to take a united effort. Law enforcement alone can’t do it all, no matter how hard we try,” he said.

EastRidge Health Systems President and CEO Paul Macom has no doubt that patients are increasingly experiencing problems with opiate addiction – and heroin is now one of the most common, he said.

When coupled with other problems, such as alcohol addiction, it’s an especially difficult battle for people, Macom said.

“We have been seeing substitution of heroin for prescription drugs, because there are now more controls on prescription drugs than there were three years ago,” he said.

Macon said efforts to fund and establish local substance abuse treatment options are the key to making real progress.

“There is not enough treatment to serve the need. And based on the number of people wanting to participate in our suboxone clinic, I definitely believe that’s true for heroin,” he said.

The good news is that an additional doctor has been added to this clinic’s staff, because there’s often been no room for new patients,” Macom said.

Concerned citizens may want to let elected officials, especially legislators, know that they want increased funding so that outpatient substance abuse treatment will be available locally.

“It’s all about public money, and how it is being allocated,” he said.

Family Court Judge David Greenberg, who also volunteers with the Jefferson County Juvenile Drug Court, said he is a fan of the program because he’s seen that it works -and would like to see it expanded to other counties.

Both students and their families have shown marked improvement after participating in this program that costs taxpayers very little, since most of the primary participants are volunteers.

“The kids go from having trouble in school and at home, to really being able to function at a much higher level. We hold them, and their parents, accountable- while also giving them the skills they need to be successful, and it’s a formula that works,” he said, adding that an average juvenile placement can average $80,000 annually.

Greenberg said he can’t remember any of the young participants having ever been on heroin, but that’s the point of the program.

“They do have some kind of experience, but we never want them to do heroin,” he said.

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