West Virginia Drug Czar Wants Rising Death Toll Stopped

Sep 4, 2017

The director of West Virginia’s new Office of Drug Control Policy starts his job on Tuesday, and he wants to get out into communities to see what they’re doing and to offer the state’s help in fighting the opioid epidemic.

Jim Johnson tells Charleston Gazette-Mail that one of his first priorities is to halt West Virginia’s rising death toll from prescription drugs.

“The answers are going to be in communities,” Johnson said. “The closer you are to the problem, the more you’re going to know about it and that’s where the answers are going to be.”

West Virginia has the nation’s highest drug overdose death rate, with 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015. State health officials say overdose deaths rose nearly 18 percent last year.

The Office of Drug Control Policy is overseen by the Bureau for Public Health.

Johnson was director of Huntington’s Office of Drug Control Policy from 2014 until his retirement this year.  During that time, partnerships were formed among multiple groups, including religious, medical and nonprofit organizations and schools in order to combat the epidemic. And simply arresting people made Johnson realize that the problem wasn’t going to be solved.

“As long as we had the demand we had, there was going to be a supply,” Johnson said.

Johnson said more needs to be done to get patients into long-term treatment for their drug addictions after they’ve been revived with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. Last year, after more than two dozen people overdosed in five hours in Cabell County, a follow-up study by the state showed none of them got into treatment.

Johnson said a key component for doing that will be teams that respond quickly to drug overdoses. And getting law enforcement and the medical community to work together is the only way to tackle opioid addiction.

“We’ve got a public health problem,” said Johnson, a former Huntington police officer and interim police chief. “In law enforcement, we have to have the resources to cut the supply, but one way we know to cut the supply is to cut the demand down.”

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s health officer, said a big reason Johnson was picked for the job was he understands opioids are a public health problem that hits every aspect of a community.

“He’s the best. We’re so thrilled to have him,” Gupta said.