Huntington Takes New Approach to Stop Drugs

When trying to arrest their way out of Huntington’s drug problem proved ineffective, it became clear a new approach was needed, officials from there told a gathering of Marshall County city leaders Thursday.

Those on the front lines of the drug epidemic in Huntington appeared at the Marshall County Mayor’s Association meeting Thursday in Moundsville, speaking on a program that has helped the city battle addiction, and how local counties can take similar steps.

Jim Johnson, director of drug control policy for Huntington Mayor Steve Williams’ office, said his city saw huge spikes in arrests and seizures related to drug crimes, with heroin seizures up more than 1,390 percent since 2010 and property seizures close behind, with 200 people arrested on drug offenses in a span of less than 60 days.

“You’d look at that and say ‘problem solved,’ but it wasn’t,” Johnson said. “We started to take a real frank look at what we were doing.”

Johnson said he sees parallels with Marshall County as a place through which people from out of state, such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, would come to purchase drugs — something he saw in Huntington with people from Detroit, where the cost of heroin could be twice as much. In the past five years, 500 people arrested in Huntington for drug offenses were from Detroit.

“Almost 15 percent of our births were from addicted babies. Sixty percent of the umbilical cords tested positive for opiates. We had to say we’ve got to do something with demand or else we’re never going to be successful,” Johnson said.

Ken Burner, assistant director of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said how the Ohio Valley views its addiction problem will prove crucial in its outcome.

“You have the issue here. It could get better, it could get worse,” Burner said. “It depends on how you handle it. What we did — we got a coalition of public safety and public health working together, as neither can solve this themselves.”

McMechen Police Chief August Bankey also announced a new initiative for the city, called Clean Start, in which people suffering from addiction may visit the city’s police station for assistance in connecting with a sponsor to assist in recovery and referring the addicted person for treatment. Additionally, people may surrender drugs or drug paraphernalia with no questions asked.

Johnson said McMechen’s plan was a solid one, and urged everyone in attendance to remember the humanity of the people suffering from addiction.

“They used to look at it as a matter of us versus them, but it’s just us,” he said. “All the addicts are somebody’s mother, father, brother, sister, cousin. Somebody loves them. We in law enforcement sometimes get cynical. Sometimes first responders get tired of saving the same people time and time again. But we can’t stop. We have to look at these people differently than we have before.”

Johnson said he would like to push education programs more aggressively to students at a younger age, as he believes prevention to be paramount in combating addiction.

“We know in Huntington that of our IV drug users, the biggest spike in age started at 12 years old, when they had their first experience with drugs,” Johnson said. “That’s why it’s so important that we need drug prevention programs. We can’t start this in high school. It’s got to be down in kindergarten. That’s the longest-range solution we have, is prevention.”

Marshall County Superintendent Michael Hince agreed with Johnson’s assessment, saying schools already advocate avoidance of tobacco and alcohol at an early age, and that the expansion of such a program would be beneficial.

Moundsville Councilman David Wood said he’s seen the impact of addiction on the area.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>