A Dark Addiction
MULTIMEDIA: In Mining Country, Drugs Cut a Swath -- Rising coal prices have meant jobs and money for Southwestern Virginia's mining towns. But a cloud hangs over those communities too: prescription painkiller abuse.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
TAZEWELL COUNTY, Va.
The crowd is gathering early in the dirt parking lot outside the Clinch Valley Treatment Center, the only methadone clinic within 80 miles. Third in line, Jeff Trapp smokes Winstons in his pickup, watching the cars turn off the highway and settle behind him, tires crunching on cold gravel, headlights glaring. It is 2:45 a.m., and Trapp has been awake for two hours. The clinic does not start dosing until 5.
Like Trapp, many of the patients who filled the lot one recent morning have jobs at far-off mines that start at 6 or 7. They sleep upright in their vehicles, slumped against the steering wheel, dressed for work in steel-toed black boots and coveralls lined with orange reflective strips. Dark rings circle their eyes where the previous day's coal dust didn't wash off.
"Everybody you see here works," says Trapp, his smoke-cured voice a low rumble. A $14 plug-in heater from "Wally" (Wal-Mart) whirs on the dash. "Ain't no spongers. No loafers," he says.
Work in the mines hasn't been as good as it is now in a generation. With per-ton prices doubling in the past six years, Virginia unearthed about $1.6 billion worth of coal in 2006, much of it to feed the growing energy demands of the Washington region.
Wages are up, bosses are hiring and rookie miners can start at $18 an hour -- a small fortune in a region where, as Trapp says, "if you ain't working in the mines or in the prisons, you don't make money."
But it is a boom clouded by drugs. Nearly a decade after OxyContin slammed into southwestern Virginia and much of Appalachia, the abuse of prescription painkillers in the region is worse than ever, police and public health officials say.
Publicized efforts to crack down on drug dealers and manufacturers through tougher street-level enforcement and tighter prescription regulations have failed to curb the crisis, and the result is a quiet catastrophe unfolding largely out of sight, in private bedrooms and isolated trailers far from the drug war's urban front lines.
A record 248 people died of overdoses in Virginia's western region in 2006, more than those who died from homicides, house fires and alcohol-related car accidents combined. That was an 18 percent increase from 2005 and a 270 percent increase from a decade ago, state medical examiner records show.
The problem is most acute in Virginia's poorest rural areas, and it is not limited to miners. In 2006, accidental pain pill overdoses killed more people in Tazewell County (pop. 44,000) than in Fairfax County (pop. 1.1 million). In Wise County, where Trapp lives and the per capita income is $14,000 a year, the fatal overdose rate for pain pills was 13 times those of Loudoun and Fairfax counties.
"The abuse and misuse of painkillers is the worst I have seen it in the 16 years I have worked narcotics in this area," said Lt. Richard Stallard of the Big Stone Gap police department. He is director of the Southwest Virginia Drug Task Force, which operates in Dickinson, Lee, Scott and Wise counties. His officers made 442 arrests through the first nine months of last year, an 86 percent increase from the same period in 2006.