Editorials, Opinion

Lawmakers must prioritize recovery, not punishment

As the 2024 legislative session opens today, there are certain words already on lawmakers’ lips: drugs, addiction, substance abuse, fentanyl.

And one more: punishment.

Over the last few years, as West Virginia has tried to wrangle an out-of-control drug crisis, lawmakers have talked a big game on prevention and recovery services, but when it came time to put actions to words, the results focused primarily on punitive measures. This year appears no different.

A 2023 West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy report acknowledged the importance of recovery residences — aka, sober living homes — in combating the state’s drug epidemic. At a November public meeting, Christina Mullins, deputy secretary for mental health and substance use disorders at the then-Department of Health and Human Resources, said, “We just have a shortage of certified recovery homes statewide” — leaving many recovering addicts hanging as they wait for a bed to open.

Last year, state officials asked the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences to survey sober living home administrators about the challenges they faced. The overwhelming answer: lack of funding (especially from the state) and onerous state policies.

According to reporting from Mountain State Spotlight, recovery residences increasingly struggle to find funding. West Virginia has been decreasing its financial support for sober living homes, and finding grants that fit a residence’s needs (grants can be highly specific) is becoming more difficult. Since recovery residences are not treatment centers — focusing on the social/community aspect of recovery, not medical interventions — they do not bill insurance, so they rely on government funding and private donations. As government support dwindles, some sober living homes have been forced to charge residents rent.

In 2023, the Legislature set up a task force to examine sober living homes, but lawmakers were laser-focused on potential abuses — not on the real obstacles residences’ face. As a result, the committee reviewing the task force’s report doubled-down on oversight recommendations — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but made no suggestions for supporting recovery residences in their mission, either through financial means or less regulatory burden.

Instead, lawmakers increasingly focus on punishing drug use, instead of supporting recovery efforts. Senate President Craig Blair has already bragged that he’s cosponsoring a bill to allow capital punishment — i.e., the death penalty — for fentanyl-related crimes. Blair said he thinks it will never be used but that it will send a message. But Blair should know that any law on the books can be used, so the Legislature shouldn’t pass a law that legislators aren’t prepared to have enforced.

On top of that, our jails are already overcrowded: Corrections Commissioner William Marshall, on the day he spoke to MetroNews, said West Virginia’s jails system was 167 people over max capacity, and Sara Whitaker with the Center on Budget and Policy found about one-third of inmates have to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Further criminalizing and dehumanizing people with substance abuse disorder doesn’t make fewer drug addicts. But it does contribute to our overcrowded jail system, and it makes life harder for recovering addicts. The Legislature would better serve West Virginians by putting its focus — and finances — on resources like sober living homes.