This West Virginia initiative is a model solution to the national opioid crisis

This West Virginia initiative is a model solution to the national opioid crisis

Martinsburg is a West Virginia community of 18,000, ninety miles from Baltimore, hard hit by the national opioid epidemic. The article in The New Yorker, “The Addicts Next Door,” paints a dark picture of Martinsburg. The story’s gray, grainy, foreboding images depict a community in despair.

The vignettes of struggling individuals and disconnected organizations grasping for straws in the face of the opioid onslaught is misguided and betrays a biased, stereotypical perception of West Virginians as hapless, clueless, and hopeless. Instead of capitulation, Martinsburg has responded with innovation, devising a model solution to this national problem — The Martinsburg Initiative.

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The Martinsburg Initiative (TMI) is an innovative and holistic police-school-community partnership spearheaded by the Martinsburg Police Department, Berkeley County Schools, Shepherd University, and the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. TMI is a fresh, innovative, and comprehensive approach providing the long-term solution to the opioid problem.

 

Law enforcement has embraced the common wisdom that we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. A successful war must be waged simultaneously on three fronts—enforcement, treatment, and prevention. While each component of this multi-level strategy is essential, only prevention provides a long-term solution to drug supply, abuse, and addiction.

Opioid use is increasing. Last year, approximately 1.9 million Americans used prescription painkillers non-medically for the first time and 212,000 started heroin. Enforcement and treatment alone won’t reverse this trend. Winning the war on opioids requires transforming an economic equation. We will never decrease the supply of drugs until we decrease the demand for drugs — effective prevention will do that.

The Martinsburg Initiative is applying the pioneering science of Dr. Vincent Felitti’s Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study through a neighborhood school-based strategy that begins with the family — something that has never been done before. The ACEs study categorized 10 types of traumatic experiences in childhood that increase the likelihood of substance abuse, physical and mental health problems, and behavioral disorders in adulthood.

As the number of ACEs increase during childhood, so does the probability of adult dysfunction. For example, a child with six ACEs is 4,600 percent more likely to become an intravenous drug user as an adult than a child with zero ACEs. Reducing or mitigating the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences during childhood will dramatically reduce the likelihood of future opioid and other substance abuse, other serious behavioral risks, social dysfunction, and probability of early death.

TMI goes far beyond intervention with the individual child. Reaching out to parents, we are assessing the needs of families to reduce their ACEs by connecting them with resources including: domestic violence counseling, parenting classes, mental health therapy, substance abuse treatment, and mentoring — positively transforming the child’s family environment.

The vital role of the family in maintaining social cohesion is universally acknowledged. TMI recognizes the essential truth that the family is the basic building block of individual morality and a stable, productive society. Supporting the primacy of the family is in the best interests of society and has always been an integral part of effective policing and education. We are identifying at-risk children and dysfunctional families — assessing, addressing, mitigating, and eliminating many basic causes of substance use disorders.

Strong schools build healthy communities. TMI is built upon the unique relationship that exists between police, schools, and families. Community-building goes hand-in-hand with ACE’s intervention. We are turning neighborhood schools into centerpieces for anti-opioid initiatives, community organization, and learning. Making the local school the focal point of positive community life and anti-drug activity strengthens the family’s attachment and identification with the learning institution. A new sense of belonging, community pride, and self-respect, will positively impact children, strengthen families, and empower communities.

The national opioid epidemic is at the tipping point. The staggering toll in human life and related health, crime, and social costs are unsustainable. Linking the police, schools, communities, and families in a new way, The Martinsburg Initiative is building the foundation for success.

Based upon the science of the ACEs study, TMI applies a comprehensive strategy of intervention and treatment that will result in opioid prevention. Martinsburg, West Va., the town that The New Yorker magazine depicted so unfairly and inaccurately, has provided the model solution to a national crisis.

Maury Richards has been chief of the Martinsburg Police Department since October 2015. Prior to becoming Chief, he was a 24-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department.