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Substance abuse problem must be reviewed

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Patrick Morrisey Patrick Morrisey

Patrick Morrisey is the attorney general of the state of West Virginia.

Substance abuse is a terrible plague on our state and a growing problem nationally. According to the Centers for Disease Control, West Virginia has one of the highest prescription drug overdose rates in the country. Thousands of babies in our state are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome because their mothers used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy. Methamphetamine labs are on the rise and are stretching limited law enforcement resources to the bone. Substance abuse may prove to be one of the most devastating challenges that West Virginia has ever faced.

The state's battle with drug abuse is one of our office's most important consumer protection initiatives, and it is a top personal priority of mine as well. Generations of West Virginians are at risk if we do not act soon. That is why, for the first time ever, our office has created an internal task force to address this critical issue. 

Since January, we have worked diligently to beef up expertise and capabilities. We have hired top-notch prosecutors with experience handling substance abuse cases and brought on board accomplished investigators who will pursue violations of the law whenever they occur. Soon, our consumer outreach specialists will begin educational efforts with citizens throughout our state on this awful problem. 

One of my goals as attorney general is to ensure that federal, state, county and private-sector resources are effectively coordinated to attack this epidemic. This is difficult given the complexity of this issue, but it is essential to our success. This means meeting with individuals, organizations and governmental entities that are involved in the day-to-day drug abuse fights from both a supply and demand perspective. 

Over the past few months, we have met with and spoken to many individuals and groups to learn as much as possible about efforts already underway to fight this affliction on our state. We have worked to identify areas where our office can take steps to educate citizens, assist law enforcement and create new initiatives to help fight this serious battle. 

On the law enforcement side, I have personally discussed this issue or participated in meetings with federal prosecutors, county officials and sheriffs, the State Police, local police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Guard and other state attorneys general. I also have personally discussed or had meetings on prescription drug abuse strategies with community leaders, employers, physicians, an anti-counterfeiting company, Walmart and other pharmacies, including Fruth Pharmacy — which is testing a new approach to address the meth problem — as well as with representatives of both Cardinal Health and McKesson, two of the largest drug wholesalers operating in our state. We are seeking input from and will meet with any individual or organization that can help West Virginia overcome this challenge. All constructive suggestions are welcome, as there is no "quick fix" to substance abuse. 

I am confident we will make progress. Earlier this year, more than 40 attorneys general and I wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that makers of generic opioid-based pain medication use the same tamper-resistant compounds that name brand manufacturers use. The FDA agreed with our concerns. This is a small step, but still a welcome development.

Our efforts are just beginning. Over the next few months, we expect to release a number of detailed initiatives to tackle substance abuse. These won't be silver bullet solutions, but they will help move our state forward and place the weight and power of the attorney general's office toward saving lives and reversing some terrible, life-shattering trends.

Recently, some people have tried to use this issue for political gain. Some have sought to cast the office in a negative light because we will not discuss — consistent with the law — whether any specific investigations are ongoing. Under the law, we are prohibited from discussing the contents of any pending formal investigations or even confirm whether an investigation exists. 

Let me be clear: no one in the state will solve this problem alone; we must act in a collaborative manner. That means setting aside our political differences, not taking political cheap shots at one another and accepting practical, cost-effective solutions. Regardless of one's political perspective, we cannot solely sue, spend or indict our way out of this mess. The long-term solution to the substance abuse epidemic in West Virginia will take a comprehensive effort by hundreds of different stakeholders attacking both the supply and demand sides of the problem. That's why our request for input is so critical. The Office of Attorney General is investing significant time, energy and resources behind this challenge. I hope everyone will join me in this endeavor. 

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