By Eric Eyre

West Virginia's drug czar resigned Thursday, after a little more than four months on the job.

Jim Johnson, director of the state's new Office of Drug Control Policy, was hired to help lead the effort to reduce drug overdose deaths. West Virginia has the highest fatal overdose rate in the nation.

Johnson's sudden departure comes just days after the release of a preliminary report on ways to combat the opioid epidemic. Johnson had served on a panel of experts that drew up the report. A final report is expected before the end of the month.

Johnson, who started the job Sept. 2, spoke at a House of Delegates committee meeting last week, but he gave no hint that he was planning to step down.

In a news release Thursday, West Virginia health officials characterized Johnson's departure as a "retirement." Johnson will work part-time for the state on unspecified "special projects."

"I have decided that after 45 years, it really is time to enjoy retirement, although I am still excited and appreciative for the opportunity to continue some of those efforts to combat this terrible disease," Johnson said in the release.

Johnson was the director of Huntington's Office of Drug Control Policy for three years. He previously was a police officer and interim police chief in Huntington.

In 2011, then-governor Earl Ray Tomblin created the Governor's Advisory Council on Substance Abuse and six regional task forces to address substance abuse in West Virginia.

During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers created the state Office of Drug Control Policy and, last month, Gov. Jim Justice signed an executive order stating that the Governor's Advisory Council on Substance Abuse would become an advisory board to the Office of Drug Control Policy.

In recent interviews about the transition, two members of the Advisory Council on Substance Abuse, Prestera CEO Karen Yost and Mark Drennan, executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association, said no one from the Department of Health and Human Resources or the drug office had contacted them about whether they would continue to serve and in what capacity.

Susie Mullens, program manager at the drug control office, has been appointed interim director of the agency.

(c)2018 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)