WEIRTON - State Sen. Robert "Rocky" Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, asked the many attending a meeting Thursday of Advocates for Substance Abuse Prevention for input in dealing with the illegal drug problem and got an earful.
Various officials from Brooke and Hancock counties and municipalities there had different ideas about the root of the problem and how to deal with it but they agreed they need to work together to address it.
Fitzsimmons was invited to speak to representatives of the various agencies affiliated with ASAP at a training program held at the Mary H. Weir Public Library.
State Sen. Robert 'Rocky' Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, discussed ideas to curb the illegal drug problem with various officials from Hancock and Brooke counties at a forum arranged by Advocates for Substance Abuse Prevention Thursday at the Mary W. Weir Public Library. -- Warren Scott
Paul "Bud" Billiard, a member of ASAP and the governor's drug abuse prevention task force; also encouraged for county commissioners, mayors, city managers and law enforcement officials from the two counties to attend.
Fitzsimmons said within 72 hours after he was appointed state Senator last year, he was approached by a parent seeking treatment for their drug-addicted child. Fitzsimmons said he contacted treatment facilities throughout the state and found all were filled.
"I shared the helpless feeling of that parent," he said.
Fitzsimmons said since then three people in his age group have died from drug overdoses and he has learned West Virginia has the highest number of drug overdoses among U.S. states.
"I understand this problem is very real. It's something we need to change," he said.
Fitzsimmons said drug addiction affects communities because addicts drop out of the workforce and taxes pay for jails to house addicts who turn to crime to support their habit.
Weirton Police Chief Bruce Marshall said many burglaries and breaking and enterings are drug-related, and Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said many of the recent Hancock County grand jury indictments were drug-related.
Fitzsimmons noted the concept of drug courts, where criminal offenders with drug abuse issues are sentenced to treatment and community service as an alternative to jail, has been expanded throughout the state from Brooke County, where it was pioneered by Chief Probation Officer Jim Lee and 1st Judicial Circuit Court Judge Martin Gaughan.
He said two drug-related bills in the recent legislative session failed. One would have required prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, an over the counter drug used for nasal and sinus congestion that also has been used by criminals to produce methamphetamines.
He and Del. Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, who both supported the bill, said they believe it failed because of misinformation circulated about it. They said many residents didn't know it would have allowed them to obtain more tamper-resistent forms of the drug without prescriptions.
The other bill would have allowed offenders convicted of transporting illegal drugs into the state to be sentenced up to 15 years. Fitzsimmons said he didn't know why the bill failed to pass.
Asked about a bill that would have legalized marijuana, Fitzsimmons said it failed to gain traction and never came up for a full house vote.
The state Senator asked attendees to suggest other legislation that could help address the drug problem.
"We (legislators) are not experts in this area. We need your input," he told attendees.
Follansbee City Manager John DeStefano said municipalities lack the funds to build up police departments. He noted state Community-Oriented Policing Services Grants only temporarily support new officers.
Fletcher said grants for prevention and resource officers at schools and other programs are being cut.
"It's a problem that absolutely has to be addressed, but it can't be addressed by just us," said Fletcher, referring to law enforcement agencies.
He said federal officials need to do more to curtail the flow of drugs into the U.S. from other countries.
Brooke County Commissioner Jim Andreozzi said he blames a poor local economy.
"Until we improve this economy, we're going to continue to be part of this deterioration. We could hire 100 officers in Weirton and I still believe we'd have a problem," he said.
Andreozzi said groups such as ASAP can help by educating families about drug abuse.
Norm Schwertfeger, an agent with the Brooke County West Virginia University Extension office, asked if the state has set a cap on the number of patients treatment facilities serve and if that may be raised.
Carole Scheerbaum, a Hancock County WVU Extension agent involved with alcohol abuse prevention efforts, said, "The answer (to the source of the drug problem) is D, all of the above. It's a multifacted problem and that means it needs a multifaceted approach and that's what we're trying to do."
Billiard said the discussion is a move in the right direction. He said he believes more communication is needed between various communities.
Billiard said within about a year 50 young adults died locally from drug overdoses, which saddens him.
"They say you'll never beat it (the drug problem). Well, by God, we can go down swinging," he said.
Schwertfeger said community roundtables once were held to allow local leaders to discuss issues with state officials. He suggested the idea could be revived to discuss the drug problem.
Leaders of ASAP said they will continue to work for drug abuse prevention in various ways. They have ranged from plays at local schools aimed at educating teens and others to drop boxes for people to discard unused prescription drugs that could fall into the wrong hands.
The locked boxes are found at the Hancock and Brooke county courthouses, police departments in Chester, Weirton and Follansbee; as well as several other Northern Panhandle locations.
(Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)