CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Around 100 people took part in a conservative forum Thursday that focused on economic improvement and criminal justice reform, and also included appearances government officials like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The American Conservative Union Foundation and the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, both nonprofit organizations, organized West Virginia on the Rise, which featured panel discussions on opioid addiction and how to increase economic opportunity.

American Conservative Union Executive Director Daniel Schneider said West Virginia has made improvements, but the state still faces obstacles because of the opioid epidemic.

“Right now, the status of West Virginia if you look at all the data is not good,” he said. “If doctors are addressing overdose issues, they’re not able to address cancer issues. These are systemic problems that really harm society.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia had the highest rate of death to drug overdoses in 2015. The national rate had quadrupled between 1999 and 2015.

Sessions, who took office in February after serving U.S. Senate on behalf of Alabama, said drug abuse needed to be addressed starting with risky prescription drug use.

“It is estimated that prescription opioid addiction costs our economy some $78 billion a year and that illicit drugs cost us a total of about $193 billion a year,” he said.

Sessions added 80 percent of heroin addictions begin as prescription drug addictions.

“I know that the ACU is committed to growing our economy and shrinking our government budgets and our deficits, both of which needs to be shrunk,” he said. “But drug abuse does exactly the opposite; it shrinks our economy and it grows the budgets of the United States government and state government.”

Sessions also pushed for a “Just Say No” approach to drug use, referencing the advertisement campaign started by former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of liberal advocacy group West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said Sessions is embracing an outdated method.

“We have the worst addiction problem that we ever had in this country,” he said. “They know it didn’t work back in the Reagan era and it’s not working for us now.”

Zuckett was one of more than 20 people who were either at the event outside the Four Points by Sheraton, the hotel where the speeches and panels were being held.

Prior to the event, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp offered the protesters danishes and other pastries, which some accepted. Schlapp left the treats with the outside protesters. According to one of the protesters, someone took the pastries back into the Four Points.

Sessions said drug trafficking is also a significant issue, noting the work of West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in working to keep drugs away from the state.

“His office has filed lawsuits against all culpable parts of the pharmaceutical supply chain,” Sessions noted. “They are enforcing the law against physicians, pharmacies, wholesalers and manufacturers, and that is exactly the approach you need.”

Morrisey told attendees during an address Thursday afternoon his office is taking part in multiple efforts to combat drug addiction, including a faith-based initiative.

“We already have over 100 ministers in their communities in West Virginia who want to help participate in the state hotline,” he said.

“When you look at all the root causes of substance abuse, you have to include the government as part of the problem as well because it unintentionally put policies into place to drive too many pills into the marketplace.”

Morrisey previously worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and represented Cardinal Health, one of the drug distributors West Virginia has sued.

Schneider said West Virginia’s government has improved from the ACU Foundation’s perspective; the West Virginia House of Delegates score regarding conservative principles increased three points to 66 percent over the last year, while the state Senate’s score grew 14 points from 54 percent to 68 percent in the same time period.

Daniel Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union

“We’re seeing entrepreneurship starting to improve,” he stated. “If we improve the climate for businesses to be able to create jobs, for people to get jobs, for people to be employed and create value, things will get better overall.”

The numbers were decided after examining legislation focused on economic, social and integrity issues.

U.S. Rep Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., who also spoke Thursday, said he is optimistic about West Virginia’s future based on recent business developments.

“Just down the road in Institute, there is a new natural gas methanol plant that just broke ground that’s going to bring hundreds of jobs to this area. In the Eastern Panhandle, where I live with my wife and three children, Proctor & Gamble is bringing a state of the art manufacturing facility that is going to bring over 700 jobs to the region,” he said.

“I think we’ve also seen an uptick from the new administration, thankfully, in the coal mining industry.”

Reuters reported in July U.S. coal exports had increased by more than 60 percent in 2017 due to increased demand from Europe and Asia.

According to a study by the West Virginia University of College and Business Economics, while coal production in West Virginia is expected to remain stable through the early 2020s, statewide coal production is expected to fall below 80 million tons by 2030 and continue to decline.

Schneider said West Virginia will remain in its current position if little is done to spur economic development and stop drug addiction.

“We need the economy to grow and we need people to live happy, healthier lives,” he added.

Sessions’ speech marked the second visit he has made to Charleston since taking office. He spoke at the University of Charleston in May, where he also talked about drug addiction and ways to fight the epidemic.

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