U.S. District Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld, II, just announced the launch of an organized effort to combat addiction problems in Marion, Monongalia and Harrison counties: an Addiction Action Plan. It’s an extension of an initiative that began in the Northern Panhandle late last year in response to a resurgence of heroin use in the region.
“We have partnered with thought-leaders in a lot of different areas to try to come up with a multidiscipline approach to this,” Ihlenfeld said.
Ihlenfeld’s office is collaborating with judges, lawmakers, education officials, health care practitioners, members of the media, and business leaders to tackle the region’s raging drug problems.
The Scene of the Overdose
He says one big change that’s come of the collaboration is how an overdose scene is handled.
“Just within the past couple years, an overdose scene was treated as a medical incident. An ambulance was called and the person taken away.”
That’s not the case anymore. Now a member of a drug task force is called to the scene to conduct an investigation. Cellphones and drug paraphernalia are collected as well as needles for analysis and anything else that can help definitively determine the cause of death, down to the substance, and where that substance came from.
And laws have changed. Now, if someone dies because of a drug you helped supply…
“...the penalties are significant,” Ihlenfeld said. “It’s 20 years to life if you deliver a drug that causes somebody else to die.”
Assisting the Addicted
But the Addiction Action Plan isn’t just about identifying and practicing more sophisticated and targeted prosecution.
“We recognized years ago that while it’s important to prosecute and investigate and incarcerate the drug traffickers, we need to do more with the users to try and decrease the demand for this product.”
Ihlenfeld’s office has been advocating for more treatment facilities and more ways of reaching out to community members who might be struggling.
“We have started in the Northern Panhandle by putting together and launching a website called drugfreeov.com. It’s a one-stop-shop to find anything that might be available where they live either for themselves or for anybody that they might know. ”
Recommendations for the Addiction Action Plan committees in north-central West Virginia include adopting similar online resources.
The plan also focuses on prevention efforts, largely by organizing presentations in schools.
“The feedback we get is always the greatest at the youngest age, 10 and 11,” Ihlenfeld said of the school visits he’s had so far. “They aren’t afraid to ask questions in front of their peers.”
Ihlenfeld believes it’s important to talk with kids as soon as they are able to comprehend concepts like heroin and drugs, addiction, and pitfalls in life that can lead to these dangerous scenarios.
Ihlenfeld is also focused on economic issues. Businesses have a hard time, he says, finding applicants in a workforce marred with drug addiction. Meetings are underway with business owners. Ihlenfeld says it behooves all parties to actively be a part of the solution and for business owners, that means considering all applicants — even those who battle addiction problems.
“A lot of these folks do want to work, they want to get their lives back on track,” Ihlenfeld said.
He says it’s not only an investment in the community but also in the future of the community, like one business owner in Indianapolis who hires felons almost exclusively.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars every year go towards child support because they’re earning a wage, he’s withholding, by court order. If you don’t care about the convicted felon, think about the children and what you’re doing for them. Hopefully that child won’t repeat the mistakes made by father or mother because he has the support he needs.”
Collaborations are also underway with building and construction unions. Officials from Ihlenfeld’s office in Wheeling report that very productive meetings and meaningful steps are being taken in the Northern Panhandle as the result of these collaborations. Similar initiatives have been recommended for the action plan in north-central West Virginia.
A full report, including recommendations and potential outlines for the action plan in Marion, Monongalia and Harrison counties are set to be made public this week. Plans are in place to meet again in several months to discuss progress in the region and to extend an action plan into the Eastern Panhandle.