Guest column: W.Va.’s substance abuse problem must be reviewed
Substance abuse is a terrible plague on our state and a growing problem nationally. West Virginia has one of the highest prescription drug overdose rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Thousands of babies in our state are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome because their mothers used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy. Methamphetamine labs are on the rise and stretch law enforcement resources to the bone. Substance abuse may be one of the most devastating challenges West Virginia has ever faced.
The state’s battle with drug abuse is one of the Attorney General Office’s most important consumer protection initiatives, and it is a top personal priority of mine as well. Generations of West Virginians are at risk if we do not act soon. That is why, for the first time ever, our Office has created an internal task force to address this critical issue.
Since January, we have worked diligently to beef up our expertise and capabilities. We hired top-notch prosecutors with experience handling substance abuse cases and employed accomplished investigators to pursue violations of the law whenever they occur. Soon, our consumer outreach specialists will begin educational efforts focusing on this awful problem with citizens throughout our state.
One of my goals is to ensure federal, state, county and private-sector resources are effectively coordinated to attack this epidemic. This is difficult given the complexity of this issue, but it is essential to our success. Over the past few months, we have met with and spoken to many individuals and groups to learn as much as possible about efforts already underway to fight this affliction. We have worked to identify areas where our Office can take steps to educate citizens, assist law enforcement and create new initiatives to fight this serious battle.
On the law enforcement side, I have personally discussed this issue or participated in meetings with federal prosecutors, county officials and sheriffs, the State Police, local police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Guard, and other state attorneys general. I also have personally discussed or had meetings on prescription drug abuse strategies with community leaders, employers, physicians, an anti-counterfeiting company, Wal-Mart and other pharmacies, including Fruth Pharmacy – which is testing a new approach to address the meth problem – as well as with representatives of both Cardinal Health and McKesson, two of the largest drug wholesalers operating in our state. We are seeking input from and will meet with any individual or organization that can help West Virginia overcome this challenge. All constructive suggestions are welcome, as there is no “quick fix” to substance abuse.
I am confident we will make progress. Earlier this year, more than 40 attorneys general and I wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure that makers of generic opioid-based pain medication use the same tamper-resistant compounds that name brand manufacturers use. The FDA agreed with our concerns. This is a small step, but a welcome development.
Our efforts are just beginning. Over the next few months, we expect to release a number of detailed initiatives to tackle substance abuse. These won’t be silver bullet solutions, but they will help move our state forward and place the weight and power of the Attorney General’s Office toward saving lives and reversing some terrible, life-shattering trends.
Recently, some people have tried to use this issue for political gain. Some have sought to cast the Office in a negative light because we will not discuss – consistent with the law – whether any specific investigations are ongoing. Under the law, we are prohibited from discussing the contents of any pending formal investigations or even confirm whether an investigation exists.
No one in the state can solve this problem alone; we must act in a collaborative manner. That means setting aside political differences, not taking political cheap shots at one another, and accepting practical, cost-effective solutions. Regardless of one’s political perspective, we cannot solely sue, spend or indict our way out of this mess. The long-term solution to the substance abuse epidemic in West Virginia will take a comprehensive effort by hundreds of different stakeholders attacking both the supply and demand sides of the problem. That’s why our request for input is so critical. The Attorney General’s Office is investing significant time, energy and resources behind this challenge. I hope everyone will join me in this endeavor.
(Patrick Morrisey is the Attorney General of the State of West Virginia.)