MORGANTOWN — Finding solutions to a drug overdose problem that claimed 64,000 Americans in 2016 isn’t easy.
The problems are complex, multi-faceted, and range across multiple agencies that deal in law enforcement, mental health, health care and the political spectrum.
And while thousands die — more from drug overdoses in 2016 than every American death in the Vietnam War — the nation’s law enforcement community is taxed, overworked and desperate for solutions.
“Some of us are dealing with heroin, some of us are dealing with fentanyl, some of us are dealing with meth, some of us are dealing with cocaine,” Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said. “But we are all dealing with a multitude of drug addiction issues.”
That was what Ed Preston learned when he joined three other active and former police chiefs from varying cities of diverse sizes all across the United States as part of a report issued by the Police Executive Research Forum, called “Ten Standards of Care: Policing and the Opioid Crisis.”
“Addiction is a type of disease and requires long-term treatment,” Preston said. “But we don’t treat addiction like that, typically. We get them clean in a 14- or 28-day process, and we send them right back to the same circumstances where they were using or got addicted or were exposed to it, with the same people that were using with them, exposing them to it, and expecting them to stay clean because we dried them out for 28 days.”
The report offers 10 standards for law enforcement to potentially follow.
Preston said each standard offers something important, but most focus on the same common theme: preventing a tragedy.
The current model, which often focuses on short-term care, doesn’t check every box, Preston said.
“We didn’t get them sober,” Preston continued. “We dried them out for 28 days. So, now, we have a greater chance of recidivism and overdose because now they are dried out, their body is not as adjusted to taking the doses they were before. They take the dose they took before, and now it kills them.”
The current healthcare infrastructure needs to include more massive, long-term care — treating opioid use disorder like any other disease.
“We don’t have a system set up in this area where we could put them directly into rehab right there,” Preston said. “We have to find bed space available for them. Sometimes we have to find out if insurance is available to pay for it and those kinds of things.”
Continuum of care
Douglas M. Leech, founder and CEO of Morgantown-based Ascension Recovery Services and West Virginia Sober Living Inc., agrees with Preston that the current system is flawed. The success rate for 28-day rehab stays is low.
“The more the continuum of care that exists, the better,” he said.
He and his colleagues opened Sober Living in Morgantown to extend that continuum.
First comes detox, he said, where the person comes clean under close supervision. Then comes residential treatment for 28 or 90 days.
Then instead of putting the person back in their old environment, they enter a sober living setting with intensive outpatient programming so they can become stable.
Right now, Leech said, the missing link in Morgantown is residential treatment, but that will soon change. As previously reported, WVU Hospitals is building a substance disorder treatment center at Mylan Park. Leech said it’s set to open next March. “In Morgantown we’ll have the full continuum of care.”
And with the Ryan Brown grant program, he said, more treatment centers will be opening around the state.
A recovering addict The Dominion Post is identifying as “Morgan” for her privacy also agreed with Preston.
“Anytime I went into treatment,” she said, “I could expect to be there for 30 to 90 days. The first attempt I took at recovery, I did nothing for aftercare. I simply returned to the same environment and got high within 20 minutes of being back in my hometown.
“My attempts after that I lived in sober living environments and got to experience what a recovery community was like, which gave me a lot of hope and planted a seed of where to go when I was ready.”
Preston said these issues aren’t strictly police issues. “But the police end up having to deal with it because nobody else can or will.” Meanwhile, alarming new drug trends are fast developing.
“There is a very high probability that in the near future that we’re going to be dealing with other types of drugs, such as methamphetamine,” he said. “And we’re going to see meth addiction, and with that we’ll see a different type of crime that will go with that because the effects of the stimulation of the central nervous system. Fights, assaults, batteries, we’ll see much more of those kind of things.”
Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper recently told MetroNews “Talkline” host Hoppy Kercheval that he’s already seeing that trend come to life.
“We were seizing more heroin than meth for years, and now the scales have really tipped to the point where we don’t believe we’re on track to even seize 1,000 grams of heroin compared to possibly 25,000 grams of methamphetamine,” he said.
Preston and Cooper both agreed that this isn’t just ordinary meth, or “bathtub meth” that rocked the state during the early to mid-2000s. Rather, this is “ice” — a high-grade quality meth cut with fentanyl.
“(Mexican) cartels are flooding the market with very cheap crystal meth,” Cooper said. “And the purpose is to get as many people addicted as possible so as to grow their client base back up. The profit margin was not good on marijuana for the cartels. So, they all started mass-producing this crystal meth.”
‘Save your life’
In Morgantown, Preston only hopes it’s not too late to get out ahead of this newest drug trend.
“We’re not just looking at what’s going on now,” he said. “We’re looking at what’s coming down the future and how can we intercept and stop it before it comes to crisis that we’ve had with the opiates.”
Leech said he’s seen this evolution. “It’s scary. It’s a lot different than it was five years ago, 10 years ago. It’s killing people so rapidly.”
The Dominion Post asked Leech and Morgan if it’s possible to help someone who isn’t ready. They have different views.
Morgan said, “I’ve seen people who are forced into recovery and end up sticking around and turning their lives around. I believe it is up to that individual and their desire.
“I’ve also seen the flip side where people get a bad taste in their mouth and they hold resentments on recovery communities. From my personal experience, I’ve been forced several times and nothing changed in my life until I was completely broken down and ready for a change in my life.
Leech believes it’s possible, and sometimes necessary. Sometimes waiting for someone to hit rock bottom means they’ll die first.
His services, he said, specialize in intervention. They get the family on board and willing to give up enabling or ignoring. The family can then approach the person with addiction.
In cases where the addict has committed a crime as a result of their addiction, they help the family understand that bailing the person out of jail isn’t the answer. They keep them locked up until treatment is arranged, along with direct transport to the facility.
The person might go grudgingly at first, he said, but through detox and treatment — and a choice between that and criminal charges — they may see the light and have a breakthrough.
This is a solution the courts like, he said, because it helps stop the revolving door of freedom-crime-arrest-jail.
Leech commended Preston for the work he and his colleagues are accomplishing nationwide. “They really care and they’re doing a lot of good. … We’re very lucky to have him in our town.”
Morgan had a parting thought for people who are where she’s been. “If I could say anything to anyone who is struggling: Reach out, even if you are not sure on if you want to be clean or sober yet. Try something new that you have never done before. I truly believe you will be amazed by the results of what recovery has to offer. Get connected with positive people, get involved in your community, and start living! Too many people are dying due to this disease. Save your life.”
READ ON MONDAY: Nonprofit, run by former West Virginia Congressman Alan Mollohan, aims at matching those suffering from addiction with local resources.
WV MetroNews’ Alex Wiederspiel wrote the original version of this report. The Dominion Post reporter Katie McDowell contributed.