U.S. ‘Drug Czar’ comes to southeastern Kentucky, praises growing nonprofit
A little after noon in downtown Manchester, traffic is light in the Clay County seat. Clay County High School seniors enrolled in a dual credit program are in a place you might not expect any 17-year-olds to be: the public library. They know the nation’s drug czar is in town. They also know anyone tackling the drug problem has a big challenge.
“In some some places, it's getting better. In some places, it's getting worse. I know. I've got two family members that use drugs that have been addicted for a number of years and one recently O-D’d.”
“I have many family members that are in the area and are very addicted to drugs and have actually a few pass away, due to it.”
At the check-out counter, Brianna Swafford offers one solution, but no magic bullet.
“Then again, there should be more rehabs and stuff a lot around here. But people, it is hard for them to get off of where they've been on it so long.”
A mile away, Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy – the drug czar -- is at one of those rehabs Brianna mentioned: The three-year-old recovery center of Volunteers of America-Mid States. While he meets with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, VOA leaders and local officials, next-door, Tess Lipps welcomes visitors to his Axis Coffee Shop and Gathering Place. He’s also the pastor of Manchester Gospel Mission – which he likes to call MGM – on the other side of VOA.
His easy smile disappears when talk turns to illegal drugs.
“I tell the kids at church, you know, a drug dealer, they get you down and out and thinking, you know, the stages kids go through. And that's they'll put their arm around the neck and neck say, ‘You know what, I'm the only one that cares about you.’ But they're, they're checking how thick your billfold is, with the other hand.”
Lipps is proud of the county in which he jokes he has 76 years invested. He says Clay Countians showed their mettle after last year’s devastating floods, and, before that, when they formed the Clay County Cancer Coalition, which has raised more than $600,000 to buy gas cards to help get people to their doctors. Drugs that hook people and cost them their jobs and freedom and lives, he says, are also a cancer.
A little after 2, a brief news conference in a small tent outside the VOA offers hope for another sort of cure. Senator McConnell praises the multi-tiered work of the VOA and promises continued support.
“I'm here today to help celebrate their success. Frequently, when you send money down, you wonder if it ever did any good. This has been an outstanding success story.”
Jennifer Hancock, VOA’s president and CEO, says things are getting better – at least a little.
“We have seen a 5% decrease in overdose deaths here in Kentucky, one of only eight states to see that modest decrease since the pandemic, so we're continuing, as Dr. Gupta has advised us, to double down and triple down on our efforts, which is why we're expanding this ecosystem to other regions across Kentucky.”
According to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, 12 people died of drug overdoses last year – down from 16 the year before. Gupta promises continued assistance from the Biden Administration.
“Recovery is about economic opportunity. Recovery is about housing recoveries. But for security, recoveries is about making sure that you have a transportation, to get to work.”
VOA does, or arranges, all those things, and more – and Hancock says the nonprofit will expand to at least three other Kentucky counties. I’m John McGary, in Clay County.
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