In some counties in the state, deaths from heroin overdoses have tripled in the past three years, drawing the attention of both lawmakers and law enforcement looking for ways to combat the problem.
At the statehouse, lawmakers approved the Opioid Antagonist Act during the 2015 Legislative session. The bill expands access to the overdose reversing drug Naloxone, allowing police officers to carry it and also family members and friends of addicts to seek a prescription for the medication.
Naloxone, if followed by more intense medical treatment, can save a person’s life giving them a second chance, according to Joseph Garcia, Gov. Tomblin’s legislative affairs director. Tomblin backed the bill.
But members of both the House and Senate leadership say the new law alone will not decrease the number of heroin overdose fatalities. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael said that ‘more’ should include a focus on rehabilitative services and a program to drug test those on public assistance.
“Now, it’s not a punitive measure, it’s a compassionate response to identify those who are using illegal drugs and channel\them into some kind of a counseling program,” he said.
Carmichael introduced a bill during the 2015 session to create a pilot program, but the bill didn’t pass out of committee.
House Speaker Tim Armstead agreed rehabilitative services are important, but he would like to see the Legislature focus on increased penalties for people selling drugs and bringing them across state lines.
“That’s not going to be an easy thing to do, but it's something we may need to do because if you are making money on a drug trade, you need to be in jail,” he said.
Gary Tennis, Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said he believes both Carmichael and Armstead can be right.
“I think that we need strong treatment, strong prevention and strong law enforcement,” Tennis said. “I don’t think there’s a conflict.”
Tennis cautioned, however, when Pennsylvania raised the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, a bill he wrote while working as a lobbyist for the state’s District Attorney Association, Pennsylvania saw a drastic increase in its prison population, a problem West Virginia is already working to address.
Andrea Boxill, Deputy Director of the Governor’s Cabinet Level Opiate Action Team in Ohio, has watched the problem grow in her state as well. She urged West Virginia lawmakers to approach solutions to substance abuse and drug deaths from a regional stand point, working with other states to combat the problem.