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Arrests won't solve prescription drug problem, leaders say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Arrests alone will not solve West Virginia's prescription drug abuse problem, the state's top law enforcement leaders said Thursday.

West Virginia must reach out to children and take steps to prevent substance abuse, officials including U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and State Police Col. Jay Smithers told a crowd gathered in Charleston for the West Virginia Drug Endangered Children Conference.

"Law enforcement cannot arrest our way out of this problem," Smithers said. "It's way beyond that."

West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of drug overdose deaths. More than 90 percent involve prescription drugs.

At the conference, Goodwin, the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of West Virginia, released a report with his recommendations for fighting prescription drug abuse.

The document follows a summit his office hosted in February and includes recommendations for the medical, educational and law enforcement communities. 

Health providers should follow "best practices" for treating chronic pain while trying to manage the risk of painkiller addiction, the report says.

Those include using the state's prescription drug monitoring program, an electronic database that tracks prescriptions for controlled substances carrying a high risk of abuse, such as anti-anxiety and pain medications. For patients who are susceptible to substance abuse, doctors should require pill counts, random drug testing, and an agreement that the patient will use only one pharmacy. 

The state can collaborate with existing coalitions to reach out to elementary-school children with prevention and intervention programs, the report says. Goodwin's office hopes the state's Controlled Substances Advisory Board can carry out five county pilot projects this fall.

Goodwin also wants communities to host more "take-back programs," where people can get rid of unused prescription medications, especially controlled substances such as anti-anxiety and painkiller pills. West Virginians should have access to these events four times a year, the report says.

Academic institutions and licensing boards should offer health professionals education on prescription drug abuse, the report says.

Goodwin, who also traveled to Princeton on Thursday to discuss the report, said his office has successfully prosecuted 60 pill dealers this year, but that's not enough.

"The law enforcement side of it is really kind of healing the symptoms," he said in an interview with the Gazette. "What we need to be about is preventing the sickness."

The report also urges an expansion of drug courts, as well as more substance-abuse screening and treatment referrals in primary-care settings. 

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, who is acting as governor, joined Goodwin and Smithers at the conference, saying people must look at the problem from both a state and local perspective. Communities need drug treatment facilities that offer help for addicts, Tomblin said.

West Virginia has seen some positive developments since the summit in February, Goodwin said. For instance, the state Board of Pharmacy is linking West Virginia's prescription drug monitoring database with other states' programs to help identify doctor shoppers who cross state lines. 

State Police plan to meet with faculty at every middle and high school in West Virginia, Smithers said. They are also distributing educational posters to schools, telling students that prescription drug abuse is the No. 1 killer of young people in West Virginia. The posters direct students to resources where they can get help for addiction and report suspected drug crimes.

Police also are meeting with pharmacists throughout the state to discuss prescription drug crimes, Smithers said.

The Drug Endangered Children Conference, which started Wednesday, offered workshops to social workers, police officers, health providers and others.

The state's Drug Endangered Children Taskforce started in 2005 and focuses on the plight of kids who live in homes where caregivers are selling, using or producing drugs.   

Experts presented workshops with topics that included the effects of prenatal exposure to methamphetamine and prescription drugs, communicating with mothers who are on drugs, and investigating child deaths and injuries caused by drugs. 

Reach Alison Knezevich at alisonk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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