by Ron Gregory
LOGAN — The self-proclaimed “super star” of medical marijuana legislation in West Virginia reaffirmed this week his opposition to drug court. While many West Virginia law enforcement officials, judges and elected officials have commended the state’s drug court program, Logan State Senator Richard Ojeda said in a video presentation this week that it is a waste of taxpayer money.
“If we spend a million dollars to help four people every four months,” Ojeda said, “it’s a waste of money.” The freshman senator, who personally took credit again in the video for passing a medical marijuana bill in the 2017 session, made his comments in a video social media post Monday. Even though the marijuana bill will not legalize it for at least two years, Ojeda has used its passage as a springboard for a 2018 congressional campaign. The Logan Democrat, a 24-year military veteran who claims a real estate homestead exemption, has announced he will run for the seat now held by Republican Evan Jenkins.
Jenkins had earlier declared that he will run for the U.S. Senate, the position currently held by former Democrat Governor Joe Manchin.
Maintaining at the outset of his video that he wants to be “known for being accessible and accountable,” Ojeda has consistently refused to answer Corridor Chronicle questions and has blocked numerous “political enemies” from his social media sites. Except for a brief encounter at the Logan courthouse, in which Ojeda said he qualifies for a homestead exemption “because the government says so,” the senator has consistently refused to say how he merits the exemption. State law permits the exemption on a portion of real estate taxes only for those over 65 years of age, or those certified 100 percent physically or mentally disabled.
Ojeda has said — and repeated during the recent video — that he persevered in passing the marijuana legalization bill “although everybody said I couldn’t do it. They said a freshman senator in a Republican senate didn’t stand a chance.”
Ojeda says his video comments are done to keep his constituents updated and to comment about his ongoing congressional campaign. At the close of Monday’s presentation, he said he had 119 viewers.
Some local officials were offended by Ojeda’s drug court comments. Ironically, Manchin was telling Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in Washington, D.C. Monday of his support for drug court programs. The senator has attended many drug court graduation ceremonies throughout the state,
“I have no idea where he (Ojeda) is getting his information,” Boone County Circuit Judge Will Thompson said after viewing the video. “He makes it sound like it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for each drug court participant. It’s closer to $7,000.” Actually, according to a 2013 study by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a year in prison costs $24,000; the same time in jail is $18,250; and a year in drug court costs $7,100.
According to the CBP, “if the 1,002 drug court graduates had served a year in jail rather than an equal term in drug court, the cost savings would total more than $11 million.” West Virginia’s northern panhandle established the first adult court programs in the Mountain State in 2005. Now, 31 drug courts serve 46 of West Virginia’s counties.
But glowing success stories by participants and cost savings for taxpayers did not prevent the state senate, including Ojeda, from passing legislation in their most recent session to eliminate the mandate for drug courts in all counties. The bill, SB 492, died in a house committee. When passed by the senate, 20-13, in March, Morgan County Republican Charles Trump, chair of the judiciary committee, said all counties “probably” should not have been required to establish the programs by 2013 legislation. This year, Trump called establishment of the drug courts an “unfunded mandate.”
Trump said there have been “mixed reports” about the effectiveness of the program.
But Senator Ryan Weld, a Brooke County Republican, along with Manchin, Thompson and others disagree with Ojeda and Trump.
“This gives a chance to keep families together, to reunite families, to give somebody a chance without throwing them in jail,” Weld said of the alternative sentencing program.
The state’s largest county, Kanawha, established its drug court programs in 2009. The adult and juvenile programs generally have between 40 and 50 clients, a report said.
Thompson, the Boone circuit judge, is a major proponent of drug court. “I probably spend 20 percent of my time on matters related to drug court,” said Thompson. “I sure wouldn’t waste 20 percent of my time if I thought it wasn’t effective.”
Meanwhile, Manchin told Rosenstein Monday that “our efforts to end the opioid epidemic in West Virginia must be multifaceted. Our drug courts have played an important role in helping recovering addicts regain control of their lives. I will always do everything in my power to ensure our drug courts and similar programs are fully funded.”
Logan Banner stories highlighted the success of the Logan program in 2015 and 2016. In November 2015, two juveniles and one adult graduated from the program. Congratulatory letters were read from Manchin and Third District Republican Congressman Evan Jenkins. Then-Senator Art Kirkendoll, Logan Magistrate Dwight Williamson, Delegate Justin Marcum and then-Circuit Judge Doug Witten spoke. A recent drug court graduate, Chris Newsome, spoke of the success of the program in his life.
Witten said the Logan adult program began in 2009, a year after juvenile court was initiated there, according to the Banner. “There have been almost 100 referrals with 51 active participants,” the judge said. “Juvenile drug court is designed as a 28-week program. It usually takes a little longer than that.”
Witten told those assembled that 28 juveniles had graduated from the program since its inception. In 2015, he said there had been 179 referrals with 130 accepted, 49 denied, 47 terminated and 36 graduating.
Three adults and three juveniles graduated in the 2016 class, the Banner reported. To that date, there had been 38 adult and 32 juvenile graduates, the paper said.
Among those speaking at that event was then-Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin. Newsome again congratulated the graduates and said he had received an associate degree with future plans to attend mortuary school. County Commission President Danny Godby, Kirkendoll and Sheriff Sonya Dingess-Porter also attended.
In his video, Ojeda said he is working tirelessly for the people of the district. In his usual fashion, the senator attacked those he views as political opponents, such as the West Virginia Coal Association. He said he had told Governor Jim Justice that he would “fist fight a member of the coal association for charity.” Ojeda called companies that he said exploit West Virginia landowners and workers, “heartless bastards.” The coal association is apparently branded as an enemy by the senator because of their support for Delegate Rupie Phillips, also of Logan County, who has announced he will also run for congress as a Republican.
The senator appeared to argue that marijuana is superior to opioids because “my plants come from the earth.” A Facebook comment asked, “does the senator know where opioid ingredients come from? Has he heard of opium poppy resins?”
Ojeda summed up his view of drug court by saying, “I don’t want to spend a single penny for mediocrity.” He said Jenkins “is not a bad guy” but he is disappointed on Jenkins’ record on roads, sewage, water, cell phone service and broadband. He said he would go to Washington to “raise hell for funding for our area.”
The senator said “significant areas” of the state do not have “911 capabilities,” a likely reference to cell phone service since 911 is a nationwide emergency response number that can be accessed from both cellular phones and landlines.
He concluded by saying he had gotten into “a few fistfights” because people degraded West Virginia. “I just want to give back to my state,” he said.