West Virginia Addicted: Fighting the viewpoint of crime consistent with opioid use disorder

MORGANTOWN, W.Va (WDTV) - Crime versus mental health -- that's the first topic we tackle in a new series about our state's opioid epidemic.

"It's really bad, and it's really serious," said Dr. Mark Haut with WVU's Chestnut Ridge Center. "We don't think that it's peaked yet."

The question we put out there to experts and those seeking treatment -- why is there a crime attached to the issue?

It's a problem that has impacted so many in our state. It varies on how people get introduced to opioids, but plenty of times they're used to treat physical illnesses. The problem? Becoming dependent then possibly addicted. That's sometimes where the crime comes in

"People work very hard not to go through withdrawal," Haut said. "You don't necessarily have access to that and so often times, people commit crimes to get access to have money to purchase or to access the drugs themselves."

Pete Gallo has been clean for about six months, and has been seeking treatment at the Chestnut Ridge Center in Morgantown. He told us he was involved in drugs and even criminal activity.

"Criminal activity goes along with addiction," said Pete Gallo, who has been clean for about six months. "People are down and out and they go to extremes to get their drugs."

How do we fight the viewpoint of crime being attached to the problem? One key is education and treatment.

"There's more of it associated with opioid use disorder, but some of that is related to lack of access," Haut said. "If we have increased access to treatment, more people in treatment, we will see less crime, but it won't be eliminated but there would be less."

Haut says sometimes it's hard to understand the issue, but those who know someone who has faced an opioid use disorder see it somewhat differently.

"They realize that this is not just a moral failing," he said. "This is a chronic disease that people are experiencing."

Gallo agrees. His message to the community is not to look at those with this disorder as bad people or criminals.

"The community needs to reach out and support recovering people," Gallo said. "They need to get behind the people that are in recovery so we can show a bigger light on the recovering community."