FRANKFORT – When it comes to solving the big issues of the day, President Eisenhower had it right when he said, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.”
That is exactly what happened last week, when state and local leaders from across the region met here in Prestonsburg to discuss how we can better apply our resources and expertise to counter a drug epidemic that has devastated so many families.
I called the meeting after talking with my cousin Libbi Hall, who brings a true passion to this cause. With her help, we brought together local officials – including Floyd County’s sheriff, jailer and superintendent – as well as members of community organizations that are working tirelessly to help addicts get back on their feet.
Congressman Hal Rogers’ office and Operation UNITE, an organization he formed a dozen years ago to combat drug use in Eastern Kentucky, were also represented, as was the state’s Department of Corrections. The leading speakers were Van Ingram, the executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, and state Rep. Denny Butler, a retired law enforcement officer who chairs the committee formed to oversee implantation of this year’s heroin legislation. Several other area legislators also took part.
I felt it was important to have this meeting after learning that Floyd and Pike counties led the state in the per capita number of drug-overdose deaths in 2014. I think we have done a lot to counter this trend over the years – from running fly-by-night internet pharmacies and shady pain clinics out of the state to dramatically increasing drug-treatment options in our prisons – but more clearly needs to be done.
Some great ideas came out of this meeting. In the Somerset region, for example, they’re seeing a lot of success with intense supervision of high-risk drug addicts on probation. Those taking part are subject to more random drug tests and visits with a probation officer, and violating any condition of their probation is subject to a swift response in court. The end result is that most are staying clean.
The Somerset region is also a pioneer in the use of drugs like Vivitrol, which will expand further across the state as a result of this year’s heroin law. This medicine, given monthly, blocks the high that addicts experience from opiates, making it easier for those addicted to get back on their feet.
One of the suggestions discussed last week that I think could be implemented quickly is a toll-free, statewide phone number and website that addicts and concerned family members could use if they don’t know where to turn. This would make it much easier for them to navigate a system that can be daunting and confusing for those unfamiliar with it.
Other ideas that I think have merit include offering tax incentives for companies that hire addicts who have successfully completed treatment; expanding post-treatment services; and making it easier for more judges to offer drug-prevention programs.
Van Ingram said his office is also educating doctors and other healthcare providers about their role in preventing abuse and helping their patients know what to do in the event of an overdose.
I have long said that we did not get into this crisis overnight, and it will not be solved overnight. At the same time, steps like these have the potential to move us much closer to our goal.
I want to thank everyone who took part last week and provided suggestions. I never had a doubt, but it is good to re-affirm our community’s commitment to do even more to reverse a trend that has claimed so many of our friends and neighbors. I have made fighting drug addiction a top priority of mine in Frankfort and will do all I can during the upcoming legislative session to build on that foundation. We cannot afford to lose any more to addiction.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.