As the heroin epidemic has tightened its grip on the four-state area, it’s become all too obvious that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.
Leaders in agencies on all sides of the issue agree that treatment options are just as important to solving it, if not more – especially in one of the hardest-hit areas, the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.
There were 79 deaths from drug overdoses in Berkeley County last year, while there were 23 in Jefferson County.
“It’s just unbelievable, to think that we’ve lost that many,” said Matthew Harvey, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney. “And those are the fatalities – that doesn’t include all of the overdoses. Things aren’t trending downward – they’re going to at least remain the same, if not get worse.”
“We’re looking for them to get worse.”
In recent weeks, we’ve seen multiple roundups with dozens of drug trafficking suspects arrested at a time. But they don’t always stay behind bars for long, while their customers still need their fix.
“I can only do for people once they’ve gone too far, and they’re starting to commit crimes,” Harvey added. “The options that we have in the criminal justice system aren’t the best.”
Harvey just wrote an open letter to Governor Jim Justice, asking him to declare a state of emergency to help fight the opioid addiction crisis.
“I know he recognizes that we have a problem up here, but this will show a renewed and a vigorous commitment to combating the problem,” he explained. “We need some help.”
In Martinsburg, help was supposed to be on the way. Last year, the majority of the Berkeley County Council had grand visions for a vacant building at 750 Baltimore Street, hoping it would become a drug and alcohol rehab center.
But instead, it ran into some red tape. A fight between the city and the county over a zoning change for the building ended up derailing those hopes.
“We heard a lot of, ‘not in my backyard, you’re going to create drug activity, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that,’” said Doug Copenhaver, president of the Berkeley County Council. “But it hasn’t proven to be the point. They’re asking for help, or they wouldn’t be there.”
Copenhaver said they’re still looking at other options for a public rehab center. Meanwhile, the number of participants at the county’s Day Reporting Center has increased from six to 90 people. A private, in-patient facility is also coming to Martinsburg soon.
“You may water the garden, but you don’t know what’s going to grow,” Copenhaver added. “A lot of things have grown outside of this.”
Statewide, there’s also a new treatment option that goes beyond the rehab center or the doctor’s office. Help4WV now offers a peer support coaching program, led by former addicts themselves.
“It’s not necessarily how we got clean. It’s how we can help them stay clean,” said Ann Hammond, a peer support coach who regularly travels to the Eastern Panhandle to meet with clients.
When Hammond was eight years clean, she started helping others who were going through the same struggles that she did. Having that kind of support, she said, can let people reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Detox is definitely the most emotional stage of the journey,” Hammond explained. “It’s the time when the change begins to happen. So as coaches, we can step in and help them through that transition period…and just be there as support.”
Even while West Virginia leads the nation in overdose deaths, countless people across the state are committed to making a difference.
“We can bury our head in the sand, or we can fight the problem,” Copenhaver said. “And we are fighting the problem.”
Officials with Berkeley County’s Recovery Resource Center have also applied for $750,000 worth of grant funding, to increase treatment services in the area.