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U.S. drug czar visits West Virginia

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U.S. drug czar visits West Virginia

Picture of Alison Knezevich
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette
Friday, February 25, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The nation's drug-policy chief says West Virginia can fight its prescription drug abuse epidemic by combining good police work with a focus on the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.

"We can't arrest our way out of this situation," Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske told a crowd at the University of Charleston on Friday.

Kerlikowske was the keynote speaker at a summit on prescription drug abuse. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin hosted the event, with speakers including U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and experts on substance abuse.

Kerlikowske is a former Seattle police chief who has called for an end to the term "war on drugs," saying it doesn't address the complexity of the problem. As the nation's chief drug-policy advisor to President Obama, he says the White House wants to bring attention to prescription drug abuse in rural communities.

His address was part of a tour through Kentucky and West Virginia, focusing on prescription drug abuse in Appalachia. Also Friday, Kerlikowske joined Rockefeller in Huntington for a community roundtable discussion.

Americans can turn on their TV to hear about celebrities who have succumbed to prescription drug abuse, Kerlikowske said.

"You don't get much national attention in this area of the United States, and yet look at how many people have been lost to prescription drugs," he said. "It isn't just a movie star . . . It's 16-year-old high school students in rural parts of the country. It's 32-year-old moms and dads, and it's brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles."

West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of drug overdose deaths. Most involve prescription drugs.

The epidemic isn't just West Virginia's, though, Kerlikowske said. It is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem and a public health crisis, he said.  

"Young people getting involved in drugs are doing it through the medicine cabinet," he said.

Opiate painkillers such as OxyContin are the most-abused prescription drugs in West Virginia. Kerlikowske urged policymakers to develop strategies that prevent powerful medications from getting into abusers' hands, but keep them available to those that need them for pain relief.

The all-day summit also featured discussions on the cost of substance abuse, issues facing health-care providers, pending state legislation, addiction treatment and law-enforcement efforts.

Wayne Coombs, director of the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center, told the audience that West Virginia spends more than $500 million a year on the consequences of drug abuse. That includes costs to the criminal justice, health-care, human services, work force and education systems.

"This is a very serious financial problem," Coombs said. "It's draining our treasury."

But the state spends only $8 million a year of its own dollars on treatment, he said. It doesn't spend anything on drug-abuse prevention, early intervention or recovery.

A recent study by the center found that drug- and alcohol-related absenteeism costs the state $12 million a year.

Another expert, pharmacy professor Mike O'Neil of the University of Charleston, said children are growing up with a "comfort level" around prescription drugs that didn't exist in previous generations. 

Today, "kids have no problems being in medicine cabinets," he said.

O'Neil urged parents to store medicines in "a forbidden pantry" that their kids can't touch.

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