Public officials, community members discuss possible solutions to aid in fighting addiction epidemic during town hall meeting


Blake Newhouse

Public officials and community members gather at the Christ Temple Church to discuss possible solutions for the problems facing Cabell County.

“Since I took over as U.S. attorney, the life of sentence has doubled, and I make no apologies for that,” Michael Stuart, U.S. attorney for the southern district of West Virginia, said to start the Cabell County town hall meeting on Tuesday evening.

“I make no apologies for prosecuting drug dealers from Detroit. None. Anyone who wants me to apologize, I’m never gonna do it,” Stuart said, expressing his commitment to cracking down on illegal drug trafficking in the state. “You’ll have to fire me first.”

Community members, along with public officials from Cabell County met at the Christ Temple Church to discuss the various solutions that could potentially help continue the fight against the addiction epidemic that has torn through the community.

When questioned on whether or not his strict approach would put those struggling with addiction more at risk of being arrested, Stuart claimed his approach will not target those struggling with addiction.

Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkel disagreed with Stuart, claiming his strict approach would ultimately lead to the arrest of those not just selling illegal drugs, but those who use them as well.

“You have to understand that these people who bring this poison into our town have a few key people to push this dope, but they fragment it out to users,” Zerkel said. “Your users are a lot of your low-level dealers. Some may say ‘well we’re not going to arrest addicts,’ but under this approach, we are.” 

Zerkel said that many of those struggling with addiction are so desperate that they have no choice but to sell drugs for dealers in order to survive. 

“So, yes, we are arresting addicts, and we have to deal with it because we can’t just arrest our way out of it,” Zerkel said.

JB Akers, a Charleston attorney at Akers Law Offices, proposed the idea of a reunification program for Cabell County, something that the city of Charleston did a few years earlier to combat the influx of violence within its homeless community.

The program allowed a social service provider to approach low-level offenders arrested for misdemeanor offenses, and if they were not from the area of Charleston, ask the individual if they would like to return back to their home state to be reunited their family. 

In the first six to seven months of the family reunification program, the city of Charleston sent back more than 200 people to over 30 states.

Akers claims that the reunification program confirmed that Charleston did indeed have a significant number of people who were from outside the area, which may be a concern for many citizens in Huntington. 

“It was a good program that was universally liked by the homeless task force in Charleston,” Akers said. “It also helped us by not sticking people in jail that didn’t really need to be there, because you can’t just send everyone to jail, nor should you.”

Various officials showed interest in exploring the idea of a reunification program here in Cabell County, one of them being Zerkel.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Zerkel said. “We get these people, we find out where they come from, and if they wanna go home, let’s help them get home. If they need recovery, let’s find them recovery. There is a large percentage of criminals that have infiltrated the homeless community, and they are hampering the recovery of these people.”

Community members also voiced their opinion on how they believe the average citizen can help with the addiction epidemic.

Leif Olson, a public health graduate student from Marshall University, said he believes that all members of the community should be trained on how to administer the drug Naloxone, a medication used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose, if they wish to personally help their community.

“A lot of the things we don’t talk about are the things that we can do as individuals living in this community,” Olson said. “The number one thing you can do right now to help protect your community is receive naloxone training. This is Huntington, and this is a thing that happens, and I want everyone to know that this is a real resource that we have that can turn back these overdoses.”

While the addiction epidemic is still considered an issue in Huntington, some community members, including Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, explained how the effort to decrease opioid overdoses is not going unnoticed. 

 “While the rest of this state last year had a 5% reduction in overdose deaths, Cabell County almost had a 25% reduction in overdose deaths,” Kilkenny said. “So, the fight is going our way, but we are not going to stop and until we end this death and heal our broken families.”

Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya, who was responsible for organizing the town hall meeting, also provided an update on the status of the request for an audit over the Cabell-County Health Department’s harm reduction program. Sobonya said the Department of Health and Human Resources and Governor’s office are willing to conduct an audit but will do so by requesting the information directly through the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

Public officials also expressed their wishes to continue these discussions about the issues in Cabell County through a series of town hall meetings in the future.

Blake Newhouse can be contacted at [email protected]

Blake Newhouse
Leif Olson, a public health graduate student from Marshall University, asks members of the community to receive naloxone training in order to combat overdoses in Cabell County.