HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Attorneys general from Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are pushing hard for communities in their states to get involved in eliminating drug addiction.
Democrat Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Republicans Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia and Mike DeWine of Ohio attended a conference on drug addiction Thursday at the New Life Church in Huntington, West Virginia.
“We’re trying to light a spark,” Morrisey said.
Dozens of pastors, law enforcement officers, health care professionals and advocacy groups attended. Police officers participated in a separate, private session with Beshear, Morrisey and DeWine.
“I believe what we’re doing here today is absolutely necessary,” Beshear said. “This problem isn’t partisan. You have Republicans and Democrats here. It’s something that affects our families. And I’d like to think that as parents and as concerned adults, we can rise above any of the divisiveness in our country right now and address something that threatens all of our children.”
DeWine said community involvement must include businesses, educators and faith-based groups.
Pastor Jerry O’Brien of Faith Harvest Fellowship in Wooster, Ohio, said churches can offer prevention services through youth groups and after-school programs and long-term support for addicts and their relatives.
“Addiction is the biggest mission field in America,” he said.
Noel Stegner of NKY Hates Heroin said he co-founded the advocacy group with other family members after his 30-year-old grandson died of an overdose in 2013 in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.
The group sponsors a 5-kilometer run each June to raise money for treatment programs for addicts. Stegner said the group has raised nearly $250,000 in three years.
“Our goal is just to get as close to the street as we can to help people who are suffering from addiction,” Stegner said.
West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States — more than twice the national average.
Schoolchildren in West Virginia and other parts of the country this week are participating in a drug prevention awareness campaign that includes adorning red ribbons or have theme days from wearing inside-out clothes to pajamas.
Huntington is considered West Virginia’s epicenter for substance abuse. Last year more than 900 drug-related overdoses occurred in Cabell County, including 70 deaths.
On one day alone in August, 28 people overdosed on heroin in Huntington. Two of them died. Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana communities also saw recent spikes in overdoses.
In Ohio in 2014, an average of nearly seven people died every day from accidental overdoses.
DeWine said addiction education needs to start as early as kindergarten.
“We would not decide to teach writing or English or math by waiting until the fifth or sixth grade,” DeWine said.
Morrisey read a letter from a Martinsburg third-grader who won a “Kids Kick Opioids” contest sponsored by his office. The entry included a photo of the girl and her father, taken one week before he died from a drug overdose.
Morrisey read from her letter that said, “I miss my daddy. I want to hug and kiss him every day. It is very sad when kids don’t have their daddy to play with now.”
Morrisey’s office also is running statewide radio ads advising high school athletes to be aware that prescription pain medication they take could lead to addiction. And he announced Thursday his office will send $1 million back to the state’s General Fund and Governor’s Office in hopes of reducing a drug test backlog at the State Police crime lab.