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Wheel of Soluations

Jane loves her family and wants to find a good job to support them.

Jane has a $200-a-day heroin problem. When she showed up at a Kelso homeless shelter in March, the 28-year-old told of living and working with her dealer — doing his bidding to maintain her high.

The shelter asked what she wanted for her recovery. Crying, she answered: “No one has ever asked me what I wanted.”

There was a four-day wait to get her into detox and treatment due to overcrowded services in town. Though she checked in a few times over the next few days, she never showed up for her appointment.

Though Jane is not her real name, she is a real example of the seemingly impossible task of treating Cowlitz County’s drug problem.

Does she or her dealer deserve long prison sentences?

“The risk of dealing drugs needs to be higher than the reward,” said Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha. “One thing for certain is that a person is not dealing drugs in our community while they are in prison for years.”

Or do Jane and others like her need better access to treatment?

“Addicts come in for services but often are put off for weeks or months while awaiting bed dates,” said Betsy Sully, a housing and resource specialist with Love Overwhelming, the Kelso homeless shelter. “It is critical to meet the needs of individuals who are substance-dependent when they are ready for treatment.”

Perhaps a culture that tolerates or even promotes drug abuse needs to be addressed?

“Coordination and teamwork between police, the Health Department, citizen groups, local nonprofits and churches is key to having an impact on our county’s drug problem,” Cowlitz County Commissioner Joe Gardner said.

Whether the fight needs to happen at home, in schools, in treatment or through law enforcement, community leaders say beating drug abuse is possible — especially if everyone, not just institutions, takes it seriously.

“If we can begin to see ourselves as a community that does not tolerate drug abuse, does not allow the cancer to grow and spread, then we will have conquered a significant part of our problem — the perception that we are a terrible place,” Sheriff Mark Nelson said.

A young woman emailed Sheriff Nelson recently about moving to the area. She wondered about the drug problem and the crime it brings, and he answered yes, there are drugs and some areas are worse than others.

But is it so bad?

“We are not the drug capital of the world,” Nelson said. “We have a problem, we know that. But as we take steps to improve our community, we need to be proud of each step.”

While Nelson emphasizes a multi-tiered approach using law enforcement, mental health treatment and economy boosts, Kelso and Longview police chiefs agree a tough-on-crime stance is necessary to curb drug abuse.

“Giving drug addicts food, clothing, housing, phones and money to spend is certainly not the answer,” Chief Duscha said. “Why would they want to work or try and get off drugs when everything is handed to them?”

Duscha added that treatment comes at a high cost to taxpayers with a low rate of success — while long prison sentences keep dealers off the streets.

His Kelso counterpart agrees that long sentences should be the norm, and that legalizing hard drugs is not the answer.

“We’re a state of laws, we have to hold people accountable,” Kelso Police Chief Andrew Hamilton said. “The state has lessened a number of things — lessened time in jail, probation or parole time. Some say that’s a money-saving option, but does that really help us in the battle?”

Once drug offenders reach the courts, however, jail time isn’t always the recommended sentence.

“I think the things I’ve seen work the best are the drug courts,” said Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Marilyn Haan. “Just seeing some people turn their lives around — without that structure and accountability I don’t think they would have.”

Drug court is a yearlong program involving substance abuse treatment that allows successful participants the chance to avoid jail time and have their charges dismissed. It even extends to some property crimes commonly associated with drug abuse. Those who relapse or fail to appear in court or treatment could be sent to jail.

“Until they enter the court system and you have something to hold over them … that’s another part that really makes it work,” Haan said.

If given $1 million to combat drug abuse, Haan said she would use it to expand the drug courts to get more people through.

However, forced treatment or incarceration is addressing the problem at “the end of the pipeline,” said Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning.

“Solutions need to be farther up front,” Warning said. “Number one is parents and parenting. Next is schools. It may not be their function, but it is needed.”

Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber agrees with those priorities, that kids of all ages need a safe haven at home and schools need to get children “hooked on education.”

“In addition, our local communities must create a higher quality of life ... to combat boredom and antisocial behavior,” Weber said, listing everything from parks and trails to theaters, scouting, public shooting ranges, sports leagues and bike lanes.

None of these things makes anyone immune to drug abuse or addiction, but it could help. Those with homes and jobs may have a better chance of avoiding addiction, too.

“Good jobs are a key to self-respect, and benefits allow for earlier intervention when potential problems occur,” Commissioner Mike Karnofski said. “This also requires continued improvement of our education system. Not all students need to go to four years of college, and jobs that Cowlitz County is likely to attract are those that require STEM-educated individuals, both vocationally and technically.”

Karnofski and Weber added that increased mental health treatment is paramount, as addiction and mental issues often crop up together.

“We must recognize that some personalities tend toward addictive behaviors and a vast array of evidence-based treatment programs must be made available,” Weber said.

Depending on which study you cite, drug treatment works better than drug prevention — or vice versa.

And treatment comes in many sizes — not all of which are available in Cowlitz County.

“We have no detox services in our community, which takes a financial toll on taxpayers having to pay for people coming down and accessing emergency services at St. John when what they need is detox and inpatient treatment,” said Love Overwhelming Executive Director Chuck Hendrickson.

The area’s existing treatment centers are often full, which can be a big roadblock to people looking for help.

“By the time bed dates become available, we have often lost track of the individual requesting services or they have changed their minds,” said Sully of Love Overwhelming.

Of course, just having appropriate facilities isn’t enough. Those who need help need to seek it out.

“We can be here and support you and help you along, but ultimately you’re the one that has to do the work and make the changes,” Judge Haan said.

After missing her March appointment, Jane eventually came back to Love Overwhelming a few weeks ago and is currently living in a sober house awaiting treatment.

Hendrickson shared Jane’s story, though kept her name private as she strives toward recovery that could reunite her with her children and get her life back on track. He said Jane is staying clean, and his staff “will continue to assist, support and empower this incredible soul until she leaves for treatment.”

There is no one answer to preventing another story like Jane’s from happening, or for helping those in her situation.

That doesn’t mean there are no answers.

“Anything that someone can do that benefits the community, even to a small degree, is helpful,” Sheriff Nelson said. “It changes the way we look. It changes who we are.”

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Contact Daily News reporter Brooks Johnson at 360-577-7828 or bjohnson@tdn.com.

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