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A Dark Addiction


In what is perhaps the most troubling sign of the problem's intractability, the single deadliest drug in the region in 2006 was the same one being legally distributed to addicts through treatment clinics such as the one Trapp visits: methadone.

A large black market has emerged for the drug, which is supposed to treat addiction or chronic pain with less risk than OxyContin and other oxycodone-based opioids. But methadone was linked to 78 deaths in western Virginia in 2006, and experts say that whatever ground was gained against the illegal use of OxyContin is being lost, engulfed in a widening circle of abuse that extends to painkillers, antidepressants and other prescription drugs.

Round-the-clock security is posted at Clinch Valley Treatment Center, a two-story cement building along Route 19 that was once a hamburger restaurant. It serves almost 1,000 patients, drawing them from steep-sided mountain "hollers" and tiny coal towns such as Dante, Dungannon, Honaker and other places where the winter sun casts long shadows but little light.

Every morning before sunup, Trapp drives 120 miles -- from his home in Coeburn to the clinic and back -- stopping once for coffee and gas at the Double Kwik in Lebanon. He has been going for two years, trading this dependency for the $600-a-day oxycodone habit that made his nose bleed and his wife cry. He is 54, with a pale moustache, a four-pack-a-day wheeze and the drained, sallow expression of someone who has not slept in a long time.

When the clinic doors open at 5, the crowd streams into the warm hallway, squinting in the indoor light. Trapp hands over $12.50 at a payment window, then lines up at another window for his dose: 80 milligrams of liquid methadone, mixed with juice in a little white cup. He must gulp it down quickly and get back on the road. His boss expects him at 6:30.

"This methadone makes you feel like a human being again," Trapp says.

With disability rates as high as 37 percent in coal-mining areas such as Buchanan County, the region has many people with long-term pain management needs. As is the case with lots of aging miners, Trapp's addiction to pills began in a doctor's office, not a back-alley drug deal.

"Busted-up" from 30 years working as a heavy-equipment operator and mechanic on the massive excavators used for strip mining and mountaintop removal, Trapp needed multiple surgeries to fix seven ruptured and herniated discs. Doctors wanted to implant a magnesium rod to stabilize his spine, but Trapp refused.

"I've known too many people who've done it, and they can't tie their shoes," he said.

So Trapp loaded up on painkillers, first Percocet and later OxyContin. When the prescribed dose no longer did the job, Trapp took more. Then more. He began "doctor shopping," driving to Roanoke and Richmond to find physicians who would give him prescriptions.

When the pharmacies couldn't provide enough pills, Trapp found dealers who would. Friends were melting oxycodone tablets and injecting themselves -- "bangin' OCs" -- but Trapp was too squeamish to mess with needles. He crushed the tablets and snorted them like cocaine off his kitchen table. He didn't feel high, just "good." The relief was instant.

"I got hooked on those bad boys real bad," he says.

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