Battle W.Va. Drug Crisis With Strong Leadership

West Virginia is ground zero for the nation’s opioid crisis. Communities throughout the state are firmly in the grips of addiction, and they’re desperate to find solutions. By putting the right policies into place and by taking advantage of every resource available, we can emerge stronger, safer, and better prepared for tomorrow.

A key reason that the death toll keeps rising is that drugs have become more powerful. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were introduced into the supply chain by drug traffickers several years ago because it’s easier to manufacture than heroin and more profitable. A few grains of sand equals the quantity of fentanyl needed to be fatal. It’s often mixed into supplies of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, causing even experienced drug users to be overwhelmed, and leading to more overdoses.

No silver bullet exists to end the epidemic. Many good ideas have been proposed, including some outstanding recommendations made by President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction.

Even with the proposals from Washington, West Virginia needs its own plan. When I worked on the governor’s substance abuse transition team last year, we made a number of suggestions to the governor and to the House of Delegates committee on substance abuse. Some of those ideas were eventually made into law, and I commend all of those responsible for the progress that’s been made.

But more work needs to be done, including the following:

1. Increased accountability for pharmaceutical companies — Pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers are responsible for sending excessive amounts of pain pills to West Virginia. These companies should be required to report what they’re shipping here and to pay a penny-per-pill fee to help to fund our response to the epidemic.

2. Prevention — Prevention is our greatest weapon. Each county school system has been tasked with implementing a prevention plan, and guidance from the state level is critical. I support a statewide, trauma-informed approach, similar to what is being done in the City of Martinsburg. I also encourage each county to appoint a prevention coordinator.

3. More law enforcement resources — We must ensure that our law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to protect our borders and to slow the flow of drugs into West Virginia. This can be done by working more closely with our federal partners and by making better use of technology.

4. Treatment and Recovery — Increased access to treatment and recovery is necessary in order to help those battling addiction. A standard protocol on how to follow up with overdose victims is needed so that we can steer more people into treatment and not have to repeatedly use Narcan on the same people.

5. Appointment of a “Drug Czar” — Leadership is critical during a time of crisis. We need a cabinet-level leader working on the issue seven days a week, 365 days a year, to create and implement an addiction action plan and to pursue every single federal dollar that’s available. Right now, no one is in charge.

Whether you agree with policies of previous or current administrations, blaming them only serves to politicize the issue. While federal drug prosecutions decreased nationally under former Attorney General Eric Holder, that downward trend continued with current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under whom drug prosecutions dropped to historic lows last summer. The fact of the matter is that overdoses continue to rise because the drugs are stronger, not because of the number of cases prosecuted under a Democratic or Republican administration.

Let me be clear: Vigorous enforcement is critical if we are to effectively combat this crisis. Despite Attorney General Holder’s directives, federal prosecutors in Northern West Virginia aggressively pursued drug dealers during my tenure as United States Attorney. At times, we were number one in the nation in narcotic prosecutions on a per capita basis. We prosecuted Big Pharma, doctors, pharmacists, sophisticated drug trafficking organizations and street-level dealers. We didn’t always adhere to Holder’s “Smart on Crime” policy because it wasn’t always smart for West Virginia.

We must put politics aside and get to work. Let’s create a comprehensive and proactive plan to help our state to navigate through this storm. By keeping the pressure on the pharmaceutical industry, supporting law enforcement, enhancing prevention efforts, and appointing a strong leader to oversee it all, West Virginia will continue to be a great place to live and raise a family.

William Ihlenfeld is the former United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia and current candidate for State Senate in the First Senatorial District.