The Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition hosted a screening of the Netflix documentary Heroin(e) Friday, followed by a panel discussion on the topic of the drug epidemic plaguing West Virginia.
The film chronicles the drug problem in Huntington, a community seeing overdoses at 10 times the national rate, and the people who are helping those afflicted. The director, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, featured individuals who have made it their mission to help people hooked on heroin and other drugs. These include Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, Cabell County Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministries, who delivers food to women who support their drug habits through prostitution.
Among other topics, the documentary discussed the use of naloxone, a medicine used by first responders to revive people who have overdosed on opiates. The state’s use of the drug court diversion program also is addressed in the film.
After the film, a panel of local and state experts discussed the drug problem, including how it affects Jackson County. The panel included Ravenswood Police Chief Lance Morrison, Kat Boggs of Wood County Drug Court, Ravenswood Mayor Josh Miller, Susi Mullins, acting director of the office of West Virginia Drug Control Policy, Circuit Judge Laura Dyer, Lecia McClure, of copeland health systems, river valley family care substance abuse counseling program, Jackson County EMS Director Steve McClure, and Dr. Tyler Hill, medical director of Jackson General Hospital.
I’ve seen this happen in my own family. This kind of hits home to me, and I get emotional every time because I’ve experienced it. I’ve watched it right in front of my face, and I didn’t know how to recognize it when I was 18 or 19 years old. But I wish i could have. It might have changed the dynamics of my family.Josh Miller, Ravenswood Mayor
While the drug problem isn’t as widespread as in Cabell County, Jackson County has its share of problems, panel members said. Also, opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers are a problem in Jackson County, but crystal methamphetamine is more prevalent, Morrison said.
Multiple panelists mentioned a need for treatment facilities in Jackson County.
“I don’t pull any punches. There’s no detox center in Jackson County. So they overdose in the emergency room and they go back home to use more drugs and potentially die from an overdose. It’s a cycle. We have to find funding to find at least two detox beds at our local hospital or someplace close by to start the process of treatment,” Boggs said.
Local detox beds are critical to the start of treatment, she said.
“I can get them into long-term treatment at that point, or whoever is running the detox facility can do that. But if we have nowhere for them to go the day they overdose, then we’ve missed that one opportunity where they have hit maybe their rock bottom,” Boggs said.
Miller said Ravenswood officials are working on bringing a treatment center to the area.
“I think environment is as important in recovery as anything. We were working hard to try to get 20 to 30 beds to get a treatment center here in Jackson County. We had a place; we just couldn’t get the funding,” he said, adding the search for funding is continuing and the space is still available.
In the film, Rader is highlighted as a vocal advocate for the use of naloxone to revive overdose patients. She was shown saying every instance of reviving a person, even the same person time after time, is a chance that person has at recovery. This was a philosophy multiple panelists agreed with.
“One of my drug court participants was administered naloxone seven times in one day. That may seem a drain on society and some might think that shouldn’t happen. He’s eight months sober now because somebody saved his life. As much as I don’t like that it’s so easy to get well, he’s alive to get better and be a productive member of society. So when we’re talking about the overdose numbers you need to realize there is a person on the other side of that who may have a chance if we just keep them alive long enough,” Boggs said.
Miller also said saving a person’s life is never the wrong answer.
“I take the Jan Rader side of this. It’s just my thoughts. I’ve got a 3-year-old little girl and my other little girl is 4-months old. So I always think what if that was her. I’ll always think that way. Every life is precious,” he said.
For some, it can be easy to become callous toward drug users, but that usually isn’t the case for their family members, Miller said. Like most people, Miller has family members who have been affected by drug use.
“I’ve seen this happen in my own family. This kind of hits home to me, and I get emotional every time because I’ve experienced it. I’ve watched it right in front of my face, and I didn’t know how to recognize it when I was 18 or 19 years old. But I wish i could have. It might have changed the dynamics of my family,” he said.
Morrison agreed, saying there needs to be more focus on educating family members to recognize the signs of drug addiction.
“Drugs today are like cancer. Everyone has someone in their family that is affected. But the majority of family members don’t know how to recognize it. There are a lot of key indicators that drug users exhibit when they first become addicted. For example, one of the first things they do is steal from their own family. People need to be trained on how to recognize these things and how not to enable it. We should show people how to address the treatment when their family member first becomes addicted, far before they get to the point where they have to be treated for overdosing multiple times in one day.”
Treatment and prevention aren’t the only problems related to the drug epidemic in the state. There are problems even identifying the exact number of overdoses for statistical purposes is a difficult task, Steve McClure said. There is no universal recordkeeping system that tracks every overdose, meaning the statistics can sometimes be off, at times, by a wide margin.
“We have electronic patient care reports we do in EMS. And we have to list what we were called for. So, it really looks like a good thing when we do our monthly report and we’ve got four to five overdoses. It’s nowhere to close to that. It’s a lot more than that because the unconscious, unresponsive person that we ran on could be an overdose. The unknown medical call could be an overdose; we don’t know that until we get there,” he said.
“I just got some back from the Fusion Center just today and it said Jackson County had three overdose deaths. I don’t know where they’re getting that information from. It said we had 57 times we used naloxone in 2017. That’s totally wrong. I know better than that. It’s in the hundreds,” Steve McClure added.
Mullins noted some recent developments, particularly with the recent legislative session, that may impact the drug problem in West Virginia. Additional funding has become available that could help with the issue, including funding for Quick Response Teams that help people who find themselves in crisis situations as a result of drug addiction.
“Huntington has been using the QRT since the beginning of the year. They are seeing some nice statistics in terms of people getting into recovery and into treatment. And they’re seeing change in terms of the level of hope. Word is really hitting the street in terms of people who are using that this quick response team is out there and they’re encouraged by the care and compassion that they’re seeing. A lot of times when people are getting to the point where they’re having multiple overdoses they think nobody cares,” she said.