Citizens discuss substance abuse at forum

October 4, 2018

BARBOURSVILLE — Citizens, law enforcement, public officials and representatives from the recovery community gathered Tuesday evening at the Holiday Inn Express in Barboursville to voice their concerns to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Mike Stuart during a listening forum centered on public safety issues.

This “listening forum” is the first in a series of community forums Stuart has planned over the next few weeks across the southern part of the state. The forums are co-sponsored by West Virginia’s substance abuse prevention coalitions.

The conversation was dominated by topics directly related to the substance abuse epidemic. Several people in recovery shared their stories and also expressed opinions on Stuart’s sentencing policies for those who commit federal drug offenses. Stuart said he and his team work for the harshest sentences for these crimes.

Representatives from the recovery community questioned this tactic and proposed more recovery-oriented solutions to solving the issue, rather than sending people who have committed drug-related offenses to jail for lengthy sentences.

Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry said his organization has shifted toward a recovery-minded system of solutions with the introduction of the Quick Response Team, which sends a medical professional, a mental health specialist and a law enforcement officer to the site of an overdose within 72 hours after EMS responds to attempt to direct the individual to recovery. This solution has been picked up by cities across the nation and seems to be working.

“We changed everything,” Merry said. “We have changed the outlook of the paramedics, of everyone, to go out and you’re not an addict, you’re a patient. And we go out and help you.”

Justin Ponton, executive director and founder of Newness of Life, a sober living and recovery facility, said he attended the event specifically to set an example to other people in recovery by speaking up and asking tough questions.

“I don’t like doing that, but I have a responsibility to,” Ponton said. “If somebody doesn’t come in here and speak up, we’re going to keep hearing the same thing. And people like me or people in recovery are intimidated to speak up in a room like this. You’ve got cameras, the police chief, the prosecuting attorney, the U.S. attorney, and then you have a guy like me who has no education who’s terrified to speak up.”

Stuart said the discussion was a respectful exchange between representatives from the different aspects of the effort to combat the substance abuse crisis.

“What I took away from this is it’s a broad-based community approach that we’re going to have to take to the drug epidemic,” Stuart said. “There are a lot of resources in Huntington. They’re working incredibly well together and they’re working hard.”

Stuart said the goal for the tour is to speak to community members because they know what solutions will work better than those in law enforcement.

The next stops on Stuart’s tour will be Oct. 11 at the Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, Oct. 16 at Word of Life Church in Logan, and Oct. 23 at Teays Valley Church of the Nazarene in Hurricane.

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