Huntington Mayor Steve Williams participated in a roundtable session regarding the opioid epidemic Monday, Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.
“This is different from other past meetings because it includes both U.S. and Canadian officials discussing how to combat this epidemic,” Williams said.
Some of the representatives Williams met with are from Alberta and Nova Scotia, two Canadian provinces he said are like West Virginia in regard to their environments, populations and drug problems.
“It’s a different nation with different systems,” Williams said. “But as we continue these conversations we’re starting to see that we have many more things in common than differences.”
Canadian cities and provinces like Vancouver, Toronto, Alberta and Nova Scotia are seeing the same destruction of their families and communities as Huntington, he said.
Williams said he has lost count how many times he has traveled to the nation’s capital to discuss the opioid epidemic.
“We are here to share ideas about how we can help our communities by saving lives and restoring families,” he said. “It’s a huge help to have a collaboration with others to discuss what is and isn’t working so we can learn from each other’s experiences.”
While collaboration between representatives across the U.S. and the world is a start to combatting the opioid epidemic, finding a solution will require much more time, energy, hard work and effort, Williams said.
“Solving this issue requires everyone playing their role,” he said. “All of us have an assignment to help.”
Williams said people can help by such simple actions as assisting with local youth sports, participating in a local church or helping a recovering addict acquire a job to get back on their feet again.
“We have to be absolutely diligent from a law enforcement standpoint, but we also have to have the compassion to lift individuals up and let them know we understand they are sick,” Williams said. “We have to let those who are fighting addiction know we are not going to let go, and we’re going to make sure they recover. Because the only alternative is death. When that happens to someone in your family, it’s like a part of you dies too.”
Justin Ponton, founder and executive director of Newness of Life, a recovery community in Huntington, is one of many citizens dedicated to helping solve the opioid epidemic. He founded the program nearly four years ago and has been working there ever since.
“Newness of Life is a therapeutic, peer-supported, accountability-focused community designed to promote sobriety along with establishing a better quality of life,” Ponton said.
Ponton said the idea behind the program is to nurture struggling men and women into a position in which they can become productive members of a society they may have once negatively impacted.
Ponton said he believes opioid and opiate synthetics are a major problem in Huntington because they affect the user physically, mentally, socially and financially.
“Many of our issues are due to the availability of prescription pharmaceuticals along with interstate trafficking of illicit substances,” he said. “But our recovery community is going to any lengths required to offer and develop resources while educating ourselves and others about effective measures. There are many roads to recovery. We’re all trying to collectively lead others down those roads while also creating new paths. Not everything will work for everyone.”
Ponton said he has faith in Williams, because although he is not very politically involved, the mayor has always responded to him and tried his best to help when he needed him.
“I’d love if the general public would put an end to the debate about whether addiction is a disease or a choice,” Ponton said. “Instead, we should just work together to provide solutions and opportunities for those who are suffering.”
Ponton said he wants everyone to understand there are plenty of people who have recovered from opioid addiction and gone on to live healthy, normal lives, contributing to their communities in various positive ways. He said he worries those who have successfully recovered are too often overshadowed by the sole focus on our problems and tragedies.
“I’m not sure if the drug issue will ever be solved,” Ponton said. “But my only focus is on loving people as they come and leading them with the direction I was given.”
Williams will be attending a meeting Friday as well in D.C. with municipal and county leaders from across the nation to discuss combatting the opioid epidemic in larger cities as well as smaller, rural areas like Huntington.
“We still have an awful lot of work to do. This is a long- term problem,” he said. “But our overdoses are already down 41 percent from last year, and our deaths-by-overdoses is down 60 percent.”
Williams said the opioid epidemic is not a problem that is going to be solved anytime soon, but it is something the community must overcome together. He said violent crime and robbery rates are down from last year as well, and this is evidence the Huntington community is moving in the right direction.
“But don’t let anyone say we’ve solved this problem,” Williams said. “We haven’t. We have a lot of work to do, and the only way we’ll be able to do it is if we all join together in a unified effort to overcome this.”
Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]