Posted: April 29, 2013 at 10:14 pm

By: Karissa Blackburn, Kirk Auvil, and Rachel Simpkins

The recent slaying of Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum brought southern West Virginia’s drug problem into the national spotlight. Crum had vowed to eradicate the problem of prescription drug abuse in Mingo County and when he was killed in broad daylight, many wondered if his crackdown on pill mills in the region was somehow responsible for his death.

West Virginia, after all, has the highest rate of prescription drug overdoses in the nation, and many of those deaths come from the overuse of legally prescribed opiate painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin. Crum and other law enforcement officials worked to close a number of pain clinics in southern West Virginia, but former Wood County Sheriff Jeff Sandy says some doctors are still doling out painkillers to addicts who crush the pills to get high.

“It still goes on,” he says.

Recently appointed U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II says that prescription drug abuse in southern West Virginia is a massive problem, tearing families and communities alike asunder.

An aide to Goodwin says his office has successfully prosecuted more than 200 prescription drug dealers over the past two and a half years. But while Goodwin has made strides in fighting the problem, his aides acknowledge that preventing prescription drug abuse is the best way to put a lid on the problem.

While an estimated 22 per 100,000 West Virginia residents die from drug overdoses (compared to 18 per 100,000 nationwide), the Mountain State does not have enough treatment and rehabilitation services for addicts who want to stay clean, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The federal figures estimate that only 13,000 residents in West Virginia are currently getting addiction treatment.

McDowell County, the southern-most county in the state, holds the highest death rate at 97.3.

McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia, has the highest death rate of drug overdoses in the state.

There are only two rehabilitation centers in all of Mingo and Logan counties: Crossroads for Women in Mingo County and the Appalachian Rehab Center for men in Logan. Both have a limited number of beds and an endless waiting list.

The problem of drug abuse in the Mountain State ripples far beyond the addicts themselves. Circuit Court Judge Roger Perry of Logan County says that many cases on his docket illustrate the detrimental effect that drug abuse has on families and the community.

“Probably 90 percent of what I deal with in the abuse and neglect cases has to do with drugs, and most of that has to do with prescription medication,” Perry says. “Most of the problems that we have are prescription-drug related, including cases that involve violence and theft.”

Perry says that the West Virginia Board of Medicine is not as diligent in monitoring doctors who over-prescribe addictive painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin as it should be.

“There’s been a lot of criticism about the medical licensing board,” Perry says. “Are they being aggressive about policing the doctors?”

West Virginia law requires doctors and pharmacists who are prescribing or filling prescriptions for painkillers and other commonly abused drugs to check for duplicate prescriptions on the state’s digital database, but many don’t bother. And the West Virginia Board of Medicine is not diligently enforcing its own rules, according to Perry.

“Doctors have a permission slip to [over-prescribe drugs],” Perry says, “And they’ve been doing it for years and years.”

West Virginia Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin have introduced many legislative initiatives to reduce the prevalence of drug abuse in West Virginia and across the nation. For example,  Manchin recently introduced S. 1760, the “Pill Mill Crackdown Act,” with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The bill would increase penalties for pill mill operators, put some of the seized assets from pill mills toward the more effective electronic monitoring of prescription drugs and make drugs containing hydrocodone (like Vicodin) more difficult to obtain illegitimately.

"Our first take back in Gilbert was a success, taking back approximately 20lbs of medication, the majority of it controlled substances." Picture from Mingo County Stop Coalition.

Mingo County has begun a program to encourage addicts to turn in illicitly used drugs. So far, residents turned in 20 pounds of abused prescription drugs, some of which are shown here.  
Picture from Mingo County STOP Coalition.

The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy provides funds to local law enforcement agencies located in counties with high rates of drug trafficking. There are 11 counties in West Virginia currently designated as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas , and Manchin is working with regional authorities to get more areas accepted into the program.

A group of concerned citizens in southern West Virginia known as “Strong through our Plan” or S.T.O.P. is trying to increase the number of treatment services available for addicts. According to a study of 22 treatment facilities in West Virginia, nearly 60 percent said they had a waitlist. And of those clinics, 27 percent  said they had 1-25 people on their waitlist, while 18 percent had 25-50 people on the wait list.

Gov. Earl Tomblin recently decided to expand Medicaid coverage to 91,500 working West Virginians. This move could also help cover the cost of treatment for the 33,677 people currently struggling with addiction. Tomblin has indicated to anti-drug activists in southern West Virginia that funds will be appropriated to expand treatment facilities in Mingo County and other hard-hit counties.

“I just hope [Tomblin] hurries,” says Lora Perry, an addict support counselor with Celebrate Recovery, a non-profit faith-based program for anyone seeking freedom from ‘hurts, habits, and hang-ups’. The Celebrate Recovery meetings are held in various churches throughout Mingo and Logan County.