The opioid crisis: Residents in southwest Virginia demand accountability


‘We was addicted to their pill, but they was addicted to the money’

In southwest Virginia, those devastated by the opioid crisis are demanding accountability after a previously unreleased government database reveals just how many drugs flooded their towns.

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This is a remote part of America. But it was not out of reach of the drug industry.

Over seven years, the database shows, drug companies shipped a combined 74 million opioid pills to the city of Norton, Va., and the three surrounding counties — enough for 106 pills per resident every year.

Internal emails reveal some of the companies were aware of a growing addiction crisis, but the pills just kept coming.

Jason Boyd, a father of four, has been in recovery for 12 years, with some relapses. He works part-time at McDonald’s. In high school, Boyd and his friends started experimenting with prescription pain pills. They were never hard to find. By his 20s, he was addicted.

“We was addicted to their pill, but they was addicted to the money because that’s what it is about. The definition of murder is when you sit and you plan about how killing somebody. Well that’s pretty much the definition of what they done. They sit back and say, ‘All right, this is addictive,’ but it’s same thing as just sitting there saying, ‘Well we will murder a whole bunch people and make millions of dollars off of it.’ ”
“It’s just a daggone shame that it has come to this — for all these people to die – before they start even looking into it, you know? I mean, how can you sleep at night knowing that you helped, pushed all these thousands of — millions of — pills to people and destroy lives?”

People here are familiar with pain. Coal miners tell stories of explosions they survived. Disability rates are high. This was a place where the purveyors of pain pills found a ready market.

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, a slow-release form of oxycodone. The company marketed the pill aggressively to doctors, contending it was less likely to result in addiction. But people became addicted. And the pills migrated to the streets.

Purdue denies it was responsible for the epidemic, saying the claims against it “are based on mischaracterizations and allegations we believe are without merit.”

‘He’s got this drug they’re calling Oxy’

Richard Stallard was on the Southwest Virginia Drug Task Force, based in Big Stone Gap, until he retired in 2016. He busted drug dealers for more than two decades, much of that time working undercover.

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No one knows why some people become quickly addicted to opioids while others don’t. What’s certain is that opioid addiction changes a person’s brain. People who are addicted say the drug becomes the main focus of their life, more important than family or faith, so all-consuming that they would steal money, jewelry and anything else of value to pay for the drugs they crave.

‘A war inside your mind’

Chassidy Carver is a nurse in Wise, Va. She’s also recovering from addiction. She became hooked on opioids when a doctor prescribed them to treat the pain from kidney stones. She was addicted for 14 years.

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Most people got their pills from local mom-and-pop pharmacies in small towns. To get a pill, they first had to see a doctor and get a prescription. Pharmacists noticed a pattern in opioid prescriptions: Small doses were becoming large doses.

Some doctors have been arrested and convicted of crimes related to prescription fraud. But the crackdown on shady doctors and so-called “pill mills” did not end the drug epidemic.

‘They all drank the Kool-Aid’

Greg Stewart is a retired pharmacist in Lee County, Va. As the opioid crisis exploded, Stewart and fellow pharmacist Dennis Parker started to refuse to fill prescriptions for pain pills.

Purdue Pharma says, “OxyContin has always had FDA-approved labeling disclosing that the medication has a risk of addiction” and that promotional materials “were submitted to the FDA for review.”

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Purdue says it stopped using a sales force to promote opioids in February 2018. By then, people with addictions had found other drugs to replace the pills. Heroin came in from big cities. Much of the heroin is now laced with fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent. The biggest problem in the area now is methamphetamine, which is cheaper and easier to find.

‘I’m amazed I am alive.’

Christina Roark is recovering from addiction. She became hooked in her early 30s after taking pain pills prescribed to her husband, who had injuries from his time in the military.

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Towns and cities across America are fighting back against the drug industry, seeking billions of dollars in damages to treat addiction and rebuild their communities. The city of Norton, Va., along with Wise, Lee and Russell counties, are part of a massive civil lawsuit involving nearly 2,000 communities, now in federal court in Cleveland.

At the center of that lawsuit is a previously unreleased Drug Enforcement Administration database, called ARCOS, which became public through legal action by The Washington Post and HD Media, owner of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.

The database shows America’s largest drug companies distributed 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills across the country from 2006 through 2012. As the opioid epidemic surged, so did the number of pills.

‘A lot of people in this community have died.’

As district director of the Virginia Department of Health in this part of the state, Sue Cantrell has been on the front lines of the crisis from the beginning. After she sounded the alarm for years about the toll of opioids, the revelations confirmed what she had long suspected.

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Even for those who get sober, finding jobs and security is a constant struggle. They find comfort in each other. They want to rebuild their lives. They want to spread the message that there’s a life beyond addiction. There’s hope.

Amber Wood is a chef at a diner in the town of Lebanon. She became so addicted to opioids that she would ask a dentist to pull a tooth just to get a prescription for painkillers. She has been in recovery for two years.

“We’re back here living paycheck to paycheck, barely making it, while they’re sitting with it on a desk with their feet kicked up and they can sit there and laugh at the fact that we are addicted, and now we have to maintain our program or we go right back to that.”
“It’s ruined people’s lives. I got, I got sober for the same exact reason that I started using drugs: to feel better, more often, for longer periods of time. Today I truly believe that I went through all that to have this life. I wouldn’t have a life of recovery if I never was a drug addict. But I don’t know what else I would have been.”

The prescription opioids do not explain everything about the addiction crisis in America. But the addiction crisis can’t be explained without discussing the pills.

In statements to The Post on July 16 in response to the release of the DEA database, the drug companies issued broad defenses of their actions during the opioid epidemic. They have said previously that they were trying to sell legal painkillers to legitimate pain patients who had prescriptions. They have blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by physicians and also on corrupt doctors and pharmacists who worked in “pill mills” that handed out drugs with few questions asked. The companies also said they should not be held responsible for the actions of people who abused the drugs.

About this story

Video journalists: Dalton Bennett and Joyce Koh. Senior producers: Jesse Mesner-Hage and Reem Akkad. Photojournalist: Melina Mara. Photo editor: Nick Kirkpatrick. Reporter: Joel Achenbach. Text editor: Ann Gerhart. Senior copy editor: Brian Cleveland. Design and development: Madison Walls and Courtney Kan. Design editor: Matthew Callahan. Additional reporting: Scott Higham, Sari Horwitz, Steven Rich, Andrew Ba Tran, Aaron Williams, Aaron C. Davis. Investigative editors: Jeff Leen and David S. Fallis.