By Ron Gregory
MADISON — There were more concerns than answers Friday when U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Circuit Judge William Thompson led a public meeting concerning drug problems in Southern West Virginia.
A packed circuit court room, which included Boone County students, listened as Manchin described his battle to fight the distribution of illegal drugs. The state’s junior senator offered five points to those in attendance as ways the battle against drug abuse can be fought.
Thompson hosted the gathering in his courtroom at the Boone County Courthouse. Several county and municipal elected officials and others from state government were in attendance. Manchin worked the crowd before the meeting convened, speaking personally with most members of the audience.
Thompson identified drug addiction as the “No. 1 problem in our area.” He noted, as did Manchin and others, that as a circuit judge his options are limited in dealing with the problem. The senator noted that judges like Thompson “have guidelines to determine jail time and that sort of thing.” But Manchin kept emphasizing that he favors the creation of more drug-counseling centers “and less prisons to house those who have a problem.”
A common theme of Manchin’s remarks was “the children.” The senator repeatedly asked his audience, “OK, we figure out mom and dad are drug abusers. Do we put them in jail? Send them to counseling? And what happens to their children while we do this? Do they stay with relatives? Do we take them away from their parents for three months; a year? Do we put them in foster homes permanently? What is best for them?”
Acknowledging that the drug epidemic is the “biggest problem we face today,” Manchin said the solutions begin with “people caring about each other.” The senator said, “Not one person in here has not been affected in some way by drug abuse. We need to show each other that we care enough to do something about it.”
Thompson noted that four drug court graduates from Boone County were in attendance at the meeting. He called upon the audience to recognize those “who have fought the battle and are winning it in their personal lives.”
Students included in the audience were from Brookview Elementary, Madison Elementary, Madison Middle, Scott High, Sherman High and Van High School. County officials included Sheriff Randall White, County Commissioner Eddie Hendricks, Magistrate Chuck Burnside and Circuit Clerk Sue Ann Zickefoose. State senators Ron Stollings and Art Kirkendoll and Delegate Josh Barker also attended and spoke briefly. Madison Mayor Sonny Howell, Logan Mayor Serafino Nolletti and Man Mayor Jim Blevins were also in the crowd.
Manchin began his presentation by saying, “Nobody wants to be addicted to drugs. Nobody.” From there, the senator offered a history of the development of drug abuse and spoke of efforts he has made, as governor and senator, to combat illegal drug activity. The senator then invited comments from those in attendance. Most expressed frustration that “there are few places to turn for help” with drug abuse. As the meeting reached its conclusion, after about an hour and 20 minutes, two or three people in the audience explained counseling and other services that are often overlooked at the local level.
The senator explained that he and other senators are fighting the distribution of a “new, more powerful drug than hydrocodone” that has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Manchin said, “There is no need for this pill and it should be banned, not approved.”
Manchin also said his observation is that, in other countries, students spend more time in school than in the United States. He called for further education to train youth to work productively.
“If you’ve got a good job, there is less pressure to use drugs,” he told the crowd.
The senator said he is dismayed at the current mindset in America, which he described as “take no responsibility; blame everything on someone else.”
Stollings, who is a practicing physician in Madison, agreed with Manchin, saying, “We are at ground zero in the war on drugs.” The state senator said he has led efforts to “get the state Legislature focused on the long-term problems and solving them.”
Stollings said, “There are now more tools in the tool box for a doctor to work with to try to monitor drug usage among patients. There will be no ‘doctor-shopping,’ and we will know who is abusing and who is not.”
Stollings said, “Twenty years ago, we doctors thought good patients wouldn’t get hooked on drugs. It is a slippery slope and some slid down it. As physicians, we have to recognize what we’re dealing with.”
In response to a question, the sheriff said “75 to 80 percent” of the time spent by his officers is connected, directly or indirectly, to drug abuse.
Kirkendoll said that, as a Logan County commissioner before becoming a state senator, “I voted for spending money on every program known to man to combat illegal drugs. But until we change the mindset in this country, we will have this problem.”
He said he applauded Manchin for “at least addressing the problem and looking for solutions.”
The state senator added, “We have a society that is afraid to say ‘no’ to anybody about anything. If you’re offered illegal drugs, you just take them. That’s where we need to start solving the problem.”
Thompson concluded the meeting by announcing that he has scheduled a meeting for 5 p.m. May 6, to “try to bring all community organizations together to help in this fight.” The judge said the session will be held in his courtroom at the courthouse.