Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 7, 2013

Ultimate sacrifice: It’s past time for action to address drug epidemic

By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— It is lunch hour on an average day, during an average week, in southern West Virginia. Blue skies beam overhead as the spring sun warms a landscape still chilled by winter’s wrath. The drive-through lanes at fast-food chains are packed, as are the local car washes. Mercer County residents are busy going about their day, taking care of business, chores and a humdrum of other necessary tasks.

Meanwhile, in another southern county about 100 miles northwest, tragedy is unfolding. Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum is eating lunch in his car, his eyes peeled on a former pill mill, when an individual pulls up in a car beside him. Sheriff Crum rolls down his window, shots ring out.

Crum is gunned down, in a senseless, horrific act of violence.

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Crum is known as a crusader against the prescription drug abuse epidemic that blankets southern West Virginia. Serving as sheriff for just more than three months, he had campaigned on a platform of ridding his county of this scourge.

It’s a problem that is rampant across the coalfield counties.

Once-quiet neighborhoods are now plagued with burglaries and other crimes. Streets where kids used to ride bikes and sell lemonade are now havens for hookers and petty drug dealers. Law-abiding homeowners are purchasing security systems and buying guns in an effort to protect their families and properties from thieving addicts.

Home values are going down in some neighborhoods, sexually transmitted disease rates are on the rise and, thanks to our overcrowded jails and prisons, criminals can commit a plethora of offenses without spending any real time behind bars.

Is this any way to live? Is this really what our quality of life has devolved into in southern West Virginia?

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A few hours after Crum’s death my cell phone lights up with an incoming call. It is my older brother who resides in Alabama. He has seen the headlines from southern West Virginia on the national news and has one question: “Have you gotten your conceal carry permit?”

It should seem odd — surreal — that my brother calls up not for idle chitchat, but to tout the best purse-friendly firearms because he is concerned for my safety.

Is this what we have become? How have lightweight, titanium handguns topped health and work in the order of family well-being?

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In the wake of Sheriff Crum’s death last week, Sgt. D.W. Miller, commander of the West Virginia State Police Princeton detachment, called the incident “a terrible tragedy.” Miller worked with Crum during the four years he was stationed in Mingo County.

“He was the type of guy who would do anything in the world for anybody,” Miller said in a Daily Telegraph story. “He was just an excellent, excellent human being. He would give you the shirt off his back. This is certainly a tragedy, and he will be sorely missed.”

Miller also noted, “It seems to be more and more commonplace for police officers to be involved in shoot-outs or ambushed. It’s a scary thought.”

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For years, the Daily Telegraph has reported on the prescription drug epidemic. And we have quizzed lawmakers during editorial board sessions on the solution to this overwhelming problem. In response, we have received a lot of good sound bites and theories. But no real answers.

We have addressed this issue with senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, representatives Nick Rahall and Morgan Griffith, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and a vast array of state delegates and senators. We’ve heard talk of rehabilitation and reform, education and enlightenment. But, sadly, no one has stepped up with a comprehensive plan.

We have listened to talk of steering kids away from drugs at an early age (anyone remember the DARE program?) and drug rehabilitation for minor offenders. But no one seems to address the issue of addicts who are chronic criminal offenders — those who commit serious felonies in an effort to feed their habit?

On the state level, lawmakers continue to moan about prison costs and search for alternatives to building new facilities. Rehabilitation services are great for those who really want to change their lives, but how many criminals fall into that criteria? How many only give lip service to change because they are standing before a judge and facing years behind bars?

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At what point do we demand action? When do we say enough is enough, and insist that lawmakers address the problem?

Drug testing of welfare recipients should not be a partisan issue, it should be a societal issue — a measure to identify and address the epidemic that is destroying homes, blighting communities and placing young children in harm’s way.

Frequent criminal offenders should not be given a get-out-of-jail-free card because prisons are overcrowded. They should have to pay the price for their crimes — the full price — and nothing less. Drug dealers and addicts who commit crimes should not be given a pass. They must be held accountable.

Sheriff Eugene Crum gave the ultimate sacrifice — his life — in the line of duty. At what point do we honor that action and finally get tough on crime?

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her at BDTPerry.