If America has a future as a liberal democracy, and that’s never been iffier, the role the opioid plague played in our perplexing age, a time of tremendous potential for good or ill, will be a topic of study for future scholars. Wealth inequality, the end of the Industrial Age and twilight arriving for the coal and manufacturing sectors left many citizens in pain, physical and otherwise, and Big Pharma was there with scripts in hand, ready to profiteer off the poor and suffering.
Until a couple of years ago, I had relatives who lived in the area of NYC that’s ground zero for opiate addiction. When people ask me if I’ve ever seen the Walking Dead, I say “yes,” though it had nothing to do with TV. Folks there would start with legit if perhaps unnecessary prescriptions to manage back or knee pain and then devolve into street purchases of cheaper heroin when there were no doctors left to shop. It was a one-way elevator, headed always down, for those who’d spent most of their lives on the up and up. You’d see seriously dosed people buying Lottos in bodegas, under the influence of two losing gambles.
Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths.
The trail of painkillers leads to West Virginia’s southern coalfields, to places like Kermit, population 392. There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town.
Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.
The trail also weaves through Wyoming County, where shipments of OxyContin have doubled, and the county’s overdose death rate leads the nation. One mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as the Rite Aid drugstore just eight blocks away.
In six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers, a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation found.
The unfettered shipments amount to 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia.
“These numbers will shake even the most cynical observer,” said former Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, a retired pharmacist who finished his term earlier this month. “Distributors have fed their greed on human frailties and to criminal effect. There is no excuse and should be no forgiveness.”•