By Mark Powell
Think Big, Act Local
Something happened to the Class of 2007 at two small Jackson County high schools.
Between 2006-2009, 16 young people age 15 to 21 overdosed on prescription drugs. Many of the overdoses were fentanyl-related. The majority of them were members of the Ripley and Ravenswood High School Class of 2007.
An earlier overdose in 2005 prompted community leaders to create an informal coalition to combat drug use. By 2009, 16 overdoses in a small community of 29,000 people were too many to ignore.
“The response started with a Drug-Free community grant that year,” says Director Amy Haskins. “We spent a lot of time raising awareness about the issue, talking to parents and grandparents and anybody who would listen about how the kids were accessing prescription drugs. We had stories that they were crushing and snorting pills inside books in classrooms, and teachers had no idea it was happening.” From there, the Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition was created. It led to a community-wide discussion. But education alone wasn’t enough.
The Coalition decided to do something about synthetic drugs the next year. Talks with their state legislators led to the passage of a law addressing the problem. But there was still more to do. They needed to get rid of drugs that were too easily falling into young hands. Doing that wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
In the time before drug take-back programs were popular, the coalition sought and received DEA approval. The local sheriff was skeptical whether it would work. But when their first takeback event resulted in 12 vials of morphine being handed over, he became a believer. From there, quarterly events were held, eventually leading to the creation of permanent drug drop boxes.
In time, the Coalition was receiving about 400 pounds of returned drugs yearly. It was getting so much, in fact, they couldn’t dispose of it all. That led them to work with state officials to create the first incinerator for prescription drugs in West Virginia. It’s since grown to four approved incinerators now operating at police departments around the state. Another eight mobile incinerators dispose of drugs that can’t be taken to the regional sites.
“There are things that we focus on in Jackson County, but we also try to think on a bigger scale,” Haskins said. “If we’re dealing with it here, then certainly one of the other 54 counties in our state is also dealing with it. We want to make an impact not only in our county but throughout West Virginia. Everything we work on has that premise.”
The Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition is a perfect example of people who didn’t wait to solve problems. They confronted the challenge head-on, identified things they could do, and then rolled into action.
“If we can make a difference for ourselves, we’re happy, but if we can make a difference on a state level, that’s the icing on the cake for us.”
Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.