Across West Virginia, authorities are struggling to deal with a drug epidemic that breaks up families, robs the public till and leads to premature deaths.

Things are so bad in southern counties that one official has termed the problem a “plague.”

And that’s why officials from the Legislature, the halls of Congress, law enforcement and bureaucracies pooled ideas Wednesday for taking on a drug crisis that sees West Virginia leading the nation in deaths from prescription drug overdoses.

Drug abuse has exploded to the point that no segment of society can afford to ignore it and must get involved, speaker after speaker exhorted.

“Without question, prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in West Virginia,” State Police Superintendent Jay Smithers told a special summit Wednesday at Twin Falls State Park near Summersville.

“In southern counties, you can actually call it a plague.”

Smithers said one 80-milligram tablet of OxyContin can be sold for more than $100, and users are known to ingest multiple pills daily.

“This becomes expensive and leads to additional crimes, such as burglaries and other larcenies to obtain money to purchase more pills,” he said.

“It is the family that is affected the most.”

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who organized the seminar to bring multiple forces together, noted that modern medications have been a blessing to the pain-ridden but also have “turned countless lives into a living hell.”

Once relegated to darkened homes or institutions, drug abuse is now in the open, he said.

“It is rampant on our main streets, near police stations and even in front of our schools,” he said.

“It’s an appalling epidemic among the young and the old, the rich and the poor alike. It’s a nationwide problem, and it needs national attention.”

From 2001 to 2008, he said, nine in 10 drug-related deaths were attributed to prescribed medications.

“Not one segment of government will solve this problem alone,” the 3rd District Democrat said.

“No one of us in this room will solve it alone. It’s hard to say where this will lead. I do know this is another step in a long journey to combating this chronic plague.”

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin likewise used the term “epidemic” and called on police, doctors and rehabilitation specialists to produce real solutions, saying the only effective means is to communicate.

In his Southern District so far this year, Goodwin said, 40 people have been prosecuted for misuse of prescription drugs. He told of a “gun-toting granny” who turned to narcotics and had thousands of dollars in hand from peddling the drugs while grandchildren were living in her home.

“We’re not going to prosecute our way out of this problem,” the federal prosecutor said.

“We’re not going to legislate our way out of this problem. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. The only way out of this problem is to communicate our way out of this problem.”

West Virginia suffers the highest per capita number of drug overdose deaths, he told an audience packed with uniformed police officers from all levels of government.

“It’s not only a public health problem; it’s a crime problem, too,” Goodwin said.

“It is absolutely the single biggest crime problem in the Southern District of West Virginia, if not throughout the Appalachian region.

“Fully 90 percent of the property crimes that occur in many of our counties are due to prescription drug abuse. A sobering fact is that more and more child abuse and neglect cases had their roots in prescription drug abuse.”

Within the past seven years, he pointed out, at least 119 deaths attributed to drug overdose have been documented in Wyoming County, where the median age is 39.

Prescription drugs have given rise to a whole new breed of drug dealers, preying on the addicted, many of whom began innocently enough by taking narcotics to ease pain, the U.S. attorney said.

“Just as important as the supply side of the problem is the demand side,” he said.

“As long as there is a demand, then we’re going to have a hard time stopping this problem.”

Karen Eagle-Kelly, president and CEO of Kentucky’s Operation UNITE, an acronym for Undercover Narcotics Intervention, Treatment and Education, outlined in detail how that agency is making progress in getting pill abusers unhooked.

One innovation that has helped has been Casey’s Law, which enables the addicted to be sent to treatment centers involuntarily without being charged with a criminal offense, she said.

“We don’t believe that everybody needs to go to jail forever,” she said.

Under UNITE’s program, abusers can qualify for vouchers for both short- and long-term treatment, Eagle-Kelly said.

The drug problem has worsened to the point that 49 percent of the children in Kentucky are living in homes without parents, relying on grandparents to care for them, she said.

“We’ve lost an entire generation,” Eagle-Kelly said.

Even when addicts are treated successfully, she told the seminar, their days are hardly a bowl of cherries, because dealers are ready to pounce on them with a fresh supply of pills.

“The minute they walk out the door is the hardest day of their lives,” she said.

“We see it over and over.”

Goodwin suggested no segment of society is immune, noting his office has dealt with teachers, coaches, 80-year-old church deacons and other normally law-abiding role models who “slipped into the abyss of drug addiction.”

The prosecutor said a four-pronged assault is in order, involving education, monitoring, drug disposal programs (last month’s Drug Take Back Day fetched more than 1.5 tons of unused medicines in West Virginia), and aggressive enforcement.

“We can cut one head, or two heads off the monster, but it will not kill the beast,” Goodwin said.

“We have to attack it from all sides.”

Smithers spoke of two physicians arrested in the small Ohio towns of Portsmouth and Wellsburg, where at least 2 million OxyContin pills passed through their pain clinics in 18 months.

“I wonder how many of those pills ended up in southern West Virginia,” the State Police superintendent said.

“I submit to you: This is a problem like we’ve never seen before.”

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and chair of the House Committee on Health and Human Resources, cautioned that making headway isn’t going to be cheap, given that there are a known 40,000 residents in need of rehabilitation now.

“Brother, it’s going to cost money,” he said. “We’re going to have to spend some money on this one.

“To fix it, you’ve got to own it. It’s ours. It’s nobody else’s. It’s not the federal government’s. It’s not state government’s. It’s not city government’s. It’s not county government’s. It’s ours. Every one of us owns a piece of this problem.”

That problem is seen in the mirrors each morning across the state, in the churches on Sunday, at the police departments, at pharmacies and doctors’ offices, he said.

“That’s how deep it is, how profound it is and that’s how threatening it is,” Perdue added.

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