The extent of West Virginia’s drug problem is nearly incomprehensible. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Eric Eyre reported in his award-winning series last December, “wholesale drug distributors shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia over six years (between 2007 and 2012).”

What followed was rampant addiction to the powerful painkillers and a rise in the number of people who overdosed and died as a result. When the medical community and authorities clamped down on the prescription opioids, addicts became more dependent on heroin.

That was followed by the introduction of fentanyl and carfentanyl. These synthetic opioids are similar to morphine, but are 50 to 100 times more potent. Dealers mixed the drug with heroin and overdoses skyrocketed.

Eyre reported last week that the latest figures show 844 people died from drug overdoses in West Virginia last year.  That’s already well above the previous year’s number of 731, even before all of the statistics for 2016 are in.  “The drug overdose death toll has climbed 46 percent in four years,” Eyre reported.  A person dies in West Virginia from a drug overdose every 11 hours.

West Virginia’s Secretary of the State Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS), Jeff Sandy, tells MetroNews that drugs are an increasing problem in the state’s correction system.  Nearly half of the 44,000 inmates booked into regional jails last year had to be placed on detox or withdrawal programs.

Locking people up does not necessarily separate them from illegal drugs. Sandy, who took over January 16, says drug use is widespread throughout our jail and prison system. Last month, 35 inmates at the minimum security prison at Pruntytown overdosed inside the jail and 14 had to be sent to Grafton City Hospital.

Sandy says drug-addicted inmates devise creative ways to sneak drugs into prison. One of the most popular methods has been for family and friends to soak writing paper in a liquefied drug and mail the letter or photo to the prisoner.

“It’s disgraceful, and we’re going to do something about it,” Sandy said, and Friday DMAPS announced a shift in the mail policy.

“Inmates in West Virginia’s 10 regional jails now receive photocopies of all mail from family, friends and businesses,” DMAPS announced in a release on Friday.  “The originals are shredded.”  A similar policy will also be implemented at the state’s 16 prisons and work release facilities.

Sandy also pledges to continue to emphasize drug treatment efforts within the prison system so inmates have a chance for a drug-free life when they are released.

West Virginia’s problems are not unique, but they are extremely serious; we have the highest per capita overdose death rate in the country. The drug scourge feels more intimate here because we are such a small state.  Who among us has not been touched personally or know someone who has been impacted by drug addiction?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, based on scientific research, the basis of any treatment program consists of detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, evaluation and long-term follow-up to prevent relapse.  Recovery may be a life-long struggle, but as the latest statistics show, the alternative can be fatal.

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