WHEELING - U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld II wants area residents to know the catalyst that could turn a son or daughter into a drug user may not be lurking in a dark alley, but gathering dust on a shelf in a medicine cabinet.
Ihlenfeld joined school officials Monday at his alma mater, Wheeling Park High School, to announce "Project Future: The Right Prescription for West Virginia," a new drug education initiative coordinated by his office designed to raise awareness of the dangers of prescription medicine as well as synthetic drugs and other illegal substances.
During the next two years, Ihlenfeld hopes to bring the program to middle and high schools in each of the 32 counties in his jurisdiction, the Northern District of West Virginia.
Parental involvement will be a crucial element of the initiative, Ihlenfeld said. Another key is that it aims to go deeper than simply having people in suits and uniforms lecture students on the dangers of drug abuse.
"We're going to have real-life stories that are going to be presented to our children in the Northern Panhandle," he said.
Among those local students may hear from are Phil Bauer and Wayne Campbell - two fathers who each lost young adult sons to drug abuse - and Philicia Barbieri, a former teacher from Pittsburgh whose descent into addiction led her to steal thousands of dollars in computer equipment from her school and allegedly help her boyfriend rob a bank.
Supplementing the program during the school day will be a community awareness meeting that same evening, geared toward educating parents on emerging trends in substance abuse and warning signs that their children may be using drugs.
Representatives of local organizations such as the Ohio County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and Youth Services Systems also will be on hand at those meetings.
"It's so important to get to the parents because they don't always know the warning signs to look for," Ihlenfeld said.
The first Project Future event is scheduled for Oct. 9 at John Marshall High School. Ihlenfeld also announced three others - Brooke High School on Oct. 11; Wheeling Park High School, Oct. 22; and Magnolia High School, Oct. 25.
Ihlenfeld said his roots in the Ohio Valley, growing up in the Wheeling area and working all over the Northern Panhandle convinced him that such a program could work here.
"If we reach only a few students, it's a worthwhile project. ... It breaks my heart every time my office has to indict someone who comes from this area," he said.
Mark Simala, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent working in Ihlenfeld's jurisdiction, said the Northern Panhandle has the most serious drug crisis of all the places he's worked in 17 years with the agency, noting the availability of prescription pills and heroin is "at epidemic levels."
Simala took the opportunity to remind those in attendance of the DEA's National Take Back Initiative, set for Saturday at thousands of sites around the country, during which the public can surrender unwanted or expired pharmaceuticals for safe disposal, no questions asked.
A complete list of participating takeback locations can be found at deadiversion.usdoj.gov.
During a similar effort in April, the DEA and its partner agencies in local and state law enforcement across the country collected 276 tons of unwanted or expired prescription pills. In West Virginia alone, the haul was 4,795 pounds of medication, according to state Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office.
According to Ihlenfeld, efforts such as Project Future are made possible through the White House's recent designation of Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall counties as "high intensity drug trafficking areas" slated to receive additional federal funding to fight drug use in those areas.