Wednesday, March 15, 2006

New committee will fight substance abuse in county

Escalating meth use focus of attack

Express Staff Writer

Sheriff Walt Femling

With alcohol and drug abuse continuing to rise in Blaine County—particularly the use of methamphetamine—members of the Community Justice Council established on Tuesday a coordinating committee that will develop a comprehensive plan of attack to battle the problem.

The Justice Council is composed of about 20 separate entities, including law enforcement officials, social workers, educators, drug counselors and concerned citizens.

The eventual goal of the new coordinating committee is twofold: bring all of the separate entities together under one umbrella; and hold a communitywide forum to further address battling substance abuse in the county.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling has long been a proponent of developing such a system, especially with the growing use of methamphetamine in the county.

Meth is highly addictive and cheap to make and buy. Use of the drug has skyrocketed across the West over the past several years and is now becoming an epidemic in the Midwest and East, Femling said.

The effects of the drug are devastating to the human body, creating open sores on the skin, causing hair and teeth to fall out, and inflicting potentially irreversible brain damage.

Femling said the effects of the drug don't just impact the users and their families, but the entire community. He said the drug has put a strain on hospitals, foster care systems, schools, health care and jails.

Exactly how many meth users live in Blaine County is unknown, but the Justice Council feels that is no reason to ignore the problem.

Femling, who's also a member of the National Justice and Public Safety Committee, said meth has recently been identified as the No. 1 drug problem in the country, and such a distinction will open the door to federal funding to fight the problem.

Teresa Espedal, chief of the Blaine County Probation Department, said the new coordinating committee shouldn't focus solely on meth, but all drugs, including alcohol.

She also stressed that members of the separate entities should work together to battle all problems associated with substance abuse.

"The big issue will be how do we make Blaine County the safest place to live in the state of Idaho," she said.

Femling agreed.

"What we know is that all of these treatment people will not solve this alone," he said. "How do we make sure we make this bigger and let citizens know they have an obligation to get involved?"

Len Harlig, co-chairman of the Justice Council, appointed Femling and Tom Bailey, the principal of Hailey Elementary School and chairman of the Community Drug Summit Committee, to head the coordinating committee.

"The overall goal is to build rapport through education and the process with the underlying entities, social services and the general public," Bailey said. "Then we can take this out and hold a valleywide forum where everyone can come together and work on changing the outcome of the community."

Harlig said he was encouraged because "for the first time I'm beginning to hear (the Justice Council members) say, 'Even though we're all working hard on this individually, we can all do better collectively.'

"I think we're on the right track."

The new coordinating committee will begin working on the process immediately.

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