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Justice Benjamin: What I Would Say to Obama on Drug Abuse

Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin says the state's drug courts, such as this one serving Calhoun and Roane counties, are producing good results. But he says the state has to do more in prevention. Credit: West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals
Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin says the state's drug courts, such as this one serving Calhoun and Roane counties, are producing good results. But he says the state has to do more in prevention. Credit: West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals
October 21, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - President Obama is discussing West Virginia's drug crisis with folks in Charleston today. One judge working hard on the issue says this is a good time for the state to move from reacting to the problem to better prevention.

Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin can take a lot of credit for the success of West Virginia's drug court system, but said it's a national problem, and the judicial system - and, in fact, no branch of government - can fix it by itself. Benjamin said we have to do a much better job of prevention and public education.

"Drug education can start earlier in the schools," he said, "but we also have to educate within our families, within our churches, within all places where we can get the word out."

The president is coming to the state in part because West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country.

By sentencing nonviolent offenders to go through treatment instead of jail time, Benjamin said, the drug courts are as much as six times more likely to get offenders to stay clean. He said results like that carry an important lesson in the face of what can seem hopeless - that there are things that work. And he said seeing how the more than 1,000 graduates of the drug courts are doing is impressive, on an individual basis.

"They're now working, they're now taking care of legal responsibilities, they're active family and community members again, and most importantly, they're sober," he said. "Those are victories each time they happen."

However, Benjamin said, the drug courts only are really picking up the pieces after bad things start to happen. With drug abuse showing up everywhere from job sites to the blood of newborns, he said, we have to be more proactive.

"The only drawback, though, with drug courts is, it is a responsive program," he said. "It is one that occurs after the problem has already manifested."

The West Virginia University School of Medicine prescription drug-abuse quitline is 1-866-WVQUITT or wvrxabuse.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV