West Virginia was one of the leading states for a significant increase in drug overdose deaths during the past several years. Opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, were among the most common substances in autopsy reports. Opioid overdose deaths increased from less than 500 in 2013 to 833 in 2017. The death rate dropped slightly from 2017 to 2019. However, overdose deaths increased across the United States as a result of the pandemic in 2020.
In early 2021, the CDC reported a total of 1,147 opioid overdose deaths in West Virginia between August 2019 and August 2020. On a list of states with the sharpest opioid overdose death increases for 2020, West Virginia ranked fifth. While most of the opioid overdose deaths in 2018 were from synthetic opioids, 195 were due to heroin. When opioid-related overdose deaths were still decreasing slightly before the pandemic, methamphetamine overdoses were on the rise. Meth overdose deaths in 2019 totaled 372, which was an increase of 60% from 2017’s total.
In 2017, West Virginia had the highest drug overdose death rate per 100,000 among all 50 states. During the same year, the state ranked fifth for the highest rate of cocaine overdoses. Cocaine, heroin and synthetic opioids are the most common drugs that lead to overdose deaths. However, one of the most commonly abused substances in the state is marijuana. State officials are maintaining and developing measures to address the growing West Virginia drug problem.
West Virginia Drug Laws
Some of the current laws help and others exacerbate existing problems. These are the most important laws that affect drug availability and consequences for drug use in West Virginia.
Clemency for Emergency Help
A common barrier to life-saving treatment that researchers identified in the past in many states was fear of legal repercussions. For example, imagine that a person uses drugs or gets drunk without being of legal age at a party or gathering. Another person taking the individual in for emergency treatment may also fear legal consequences. Additionally, the person needing treatment may fear those consequences.
Chapter 16, Article 47 of the West Virginia Code grants clemency or leniency to people who help a person who illegally consumes a substance if the helper seeks emergency treatment for the intoxicated person and stays at the hospital with that intoxicated person. The purpose of this law is to potentially help reduce the number of fatal drug overdose deaths and deaths due to alcohol poisoning. If people fear legal consequences, they may die if they do not seek help because of that.
Clemency may not extend to people who have a proven intent to distribute. Dealers still face serious consequences under the drug-induced homicide law. The law is designed to deter trafficking and selling.
Access To Opioid Antagonists Act
In response to the soaring number of opioid overdose deaths, West Virginia enacted this law, which is in Chapter 16, Section 46 of the West Virginia Code. The purpose of the law is to make naloxone available to people who have a higher risk of overdose. For example, people who take opioid prescriptions or are in treatment for drug addiction and have a high risk of relapse may receive the medication. This law’s purpose is also to make the substance easy to obtain for friends, family members or caregivers of people who have a high risk of opioid overdose.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources issued a standing order to allow all eligible persons to obtain a naloxone prescription. This order mirrored the updated law’s provisions, specifying that eligible persons are those who are close to or care for an at-risk person. Opioid overdose deaths decreased for a while after the law went into effect, at least until 2020.
This law is still helpful since it makes life-saving treatment available to anyone and not just first responders or other medical professionals. By filling a prescription for it, a person has the substance at home and can receive it immediately instead of waiting for medical help.
Opioid Reduction Act
Also called Senate Bill 273, this law aims to greatly reduce the number of opioid prescriptions written in West Virginia. It allows people to specify in their medical directives and records that they do not wish to receive opioid prescriptions. Also, physicians must use alternatives before they resort to opioids in most cases. For example, if someone may benefit from physical therapy to heal faster, the physician must recommend that first. The idea is to take a conservative approach with opioids and reduce the number of overdoses and addictions.
Although this act certainly helped reduce the number of opioid prescriptions written, the state still had an increase in fatal overdose deaths in 2020. The death rate was decreasing until that point. However, the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy’s leader said that the reduction in opioid availability led to a rise in meth use and meth overdoses. The law led to a crackdown on careless prescribing and “pill-mill” pharmacies, which increased demand for other drugs.
Treatment Plans To Combat the West Virginia Drug Epidemic
Although the laws help reduce availability and punish traffickers, state officials and agencies acknowledge that laws alone will not reduce fatal overdoses or help people get treatment. They are working on finding ways to build awareness, provide assistance and help people find and receive treatment for drug abuse in West Virginia.
According to the state’s Medicaid data, there were about 145,000 people living with a substance use disorder in West Virginia in 2020. However, the report that accompanied the data showed that many people struggled to find help. There are less than 200 long-term addiction treatment centers, and they are doing their best to treat people through inpatient and outpatient programs. Since substance misuse increased sharply during 2020, state officials and organizations are working on new ideas. There are several initiatives in place to help for now.
This is the state’s mental health and addiction helpline. There is a 24/7 phone line and an online chat feature. Additionally, the site has a quiz and educational resources for naloxone administration. It tests people’s knowledge of how to administer the life-saving substance and provides information about it and where to get it. Peer helpers assist callers or inquirers with finding treatment options, jobs, and more.
Prevention and Early Intervention
To help reduce the West Virginia drug epidemic, the state also has several early intervention and prevention measures. These include SBIRT projects and sites, state and federal assistance for substance abuse access and several comprehensive behavioral health centers. It also conducts needs assessments to determine how to allocate resources. Its programs target people of all ages and in high-risk groups throughout the state.
Prescription Disposal Initiatives
West Virginia’s Attorney General announced several measures to combat the West Virginia drug problem. This included the Dispose Responsibly of Prescriptions program, or DRoP. In April of 2021, there were more than 70 locations that set up drug takeback plans and participated in a statewide initiative for safe prescription drug disposal. Since about half of all people who abuse prescriptions obtain them from friends or family members, this is an important initiative.
The LifeBOAT Act is a national plan to make substance use disorder treatment easier to access for people who need it. Health officials, agencies and politicians are working together on this measure as a response to what they called an epidemic within a pandemic. This refers to the growing substance misuse problem in 2020. They noted that West Virginia has been leading the nation in overdose deaths for years and praised the senators for being nonpartisan on addiction treatment issues.
In 2017, the state legalized marijuana for permitted medical use for serious conditions. This means that people with cancer or other medical conditions that may be treated with cannabis can legally use it with a doctor’s order. However, there are currently two bills in review that may legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults if they pass. Although there is still plenty of opposition, it is weakening somewhat.
Treatment for Drug Abuse in West Virginia
To combat the West Virginia drug epidemic, there are outpatient and inpatient programs, as well as online addiction counseling in West Virginia. With so many treatment structures and therapy approaches, there are more resources for state residents today whether they live in metro or rural areas. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Harmony Ridge Recovery Center is here to help you.
We are located in Walker and serve people from other areas as well. Our compassionate team teaches people how to overcome addiction and stay in recovery, providing nurturing support during every step. People learn how to deal with triggers, develop healthier habits and cope with past trauma. Please contact us to learn more.