Prescription Drug Abuse in West Virginia

Published on
July 31, 2010

My project will explore how prescription drug abuse has changed West Virginia's communities and why it is such a hard problem to control. As a daily newspaper reporter, I've seen this issue from several angles and am excited to examine it in depth.

When I joined the Charleston Gazette three years ago, one of my first interviews was with a small-town pharmacist whose store had been robbed for the second time in a month. The robber escaped with bags full of OxyContin and Lortab, but not before he and the pharmacist exchanged gunfire. The pharmacist, who was also a member of the county health board, had kept a gun behind the counter since he was first robbed a decade ago.

When I started covering the state legislature last year, one of the issues I took the most interest in was a proposal to tax methadone clinics (which treat opiate addicts) per dose. The legislation's supporters said these for-profits clinics help people swap one addiction for another. They wanted to spend the tax revenue on non-methadone treatment options, which they say are lacking in this rural state.

The idea's opponents credited methadone with saving lives. The bill's sponsor received hundreds of letters from upset patients. Dozens of methadone patients and clinic employees turned out at a public hearing to protest the legislation, which never passed.

Substance abuse affects so many sectors of society, from families to public policy to the state's criminal justice and health systems. I am especially interested in the cultural and socioeconomic aspects of drug addiction.

Prescription drug abuse is growing nationwide. Just a few weeks ago, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released a report showing that treatment admissisons for painkiller abuse rose a shocking 400 percent between 1998 and 2008.

But West Virginians are more likely than residents of any other state to die from a prescription drug overdose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the National Health Journalism Fellowship program. I hope my reporting can shed light on the complexities of this epidemic and on why more needs to be done to fight it.