CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the midst of a divisive legislative session, an issue that touches representatives on both sides of the aisle continues to be a major concern.
The Select Committee on Prevention and Treatment and Substance Abuse began its work in the West Virginia House of Delegates in January. House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said Thursday the committee is making progress toward battling the epidemic in the Mountain State.
“If I asked, everyone in the room would raise their hand that they know someone in their family, their friends or their community who has been affected by drug abuse,” Armstead said. “It hits all socioeconomic levels, it hits every community. We have recognized it’s a huge problem in our state and it’s holding us back.”
Armstead spoke as part of a panel during Thursday’s West Virginia Press Association Legislative Breakfast at the Marriott Town Center in downtown Charleston. He said the committee is working to address the multifaceted problem through discussions about prevention of and treatment for drug abuse, as well as punishment for those who bring drugs into the state and distribute them.
Armstead emphasized that in addition to being a public health issue, drug abuse continues to plague the state’s workforce.
“We’ve talked a lot about what we need to do to move our state forward in terms of economic growth, and that includes infrastructure, education, legal and regulatory reform, tax reform – but it also includes making sure we have a workforce that’s drug-free and able to take those jobs as they’re created.”
According to the West Virginia Legislature website, 15 bills are currently pending in the committee. Several of the bills concern accessibility and administration of opioid antagonist drugs such as naloxone. Another would allow local boards of health to establish needle exchange programs. Another bill would increase jailtime for those convicted of transporting drugs into the state, while another would establish a fund to provide for drug addiction prevention and treatment not otherwise covered.
The committee has already reported out a bill relating to methadone regulation, as well as one that would permit the Regional Jail Authority to participate in the addiction treatment pilot program.
Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, is one of the 11 members of the committee.
A personal plea
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, also spoke about the issue of substance abuse during the panel. He recalled the struggle his son, Jacob, had with prescription painkillers. He said it showed him firsthand the need for better treatment opportunities in the state.
“I took him to the emergency room one day. He said, ‘Dad, I’m on these pills. I can’t get off of them. My insides feel like they’re busting,'” Kessler said. “He said he’s on Oxycontins and Percocets, and (the doctor) said, ‘We don’t have anywhere to treat you.'”
Jacob Kessler was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of oxycodone trafficking and arrested in December 2013. His father called it “the worst day of my life.”
“But maybe, it was the best day of his life,” the senator said.
Kessler said he was able to find treatment for his son at a facility in Columbus, Ohio. Today, he said, after involvement in the federal drug court program, his son recently marked one-year drug-free.
“I promise you, I cannot and will not ever give up on my kid, and we shouldn’t give up on any kids in this state,” Kessler said. “We need to make sure they have those kinds of facilities and treatments available so they can become productive members of society.”