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Inside the Growing Prescription Pill Epidemic That's Ravaging Communities

What started out as a situation in poor isolated areas of the country left to their own devices has taken root and spread, across Appalachia and beyond.
 
 
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Editor's Note: We're proud to announce that we've teamed with Salon to pursue the most important under-covered stories in the country. This story is the first product of our Salon-Alternet Investigative Fund.

KERMIT, W.Va. -- It takes less than a minute to drive past Kermit, five to tour the place entirely. An old coal mining town with barely 300 residents and one blinking light between the train tracks, Kermit has no supermarket, no clothing store, no main drag. Main Street is really a side street with rows of cottages, its biggest building, the Kermit community center, empty and boarded.

Yet in this tiny town, the Kermit Sav-Rite Pharmacy used to be as busy as a New York deli. Six employees worked the counter, lines at the drive-through window snaked around the square cinder-block building, and the parking lot was full day and night.

Of course, everyone in Kermit — just about everyone in the wooded hollows of Mingo County — knew the Sav-Rite was a pill mill. It handed out Xanax, Lortabs, Vicodin — all manner of the prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs that are crippling Appalachia like a rogue disease — to anyone with an excuse. Kermit, which sits in the poorest, most remote corner of southwest West Virginia at the Kentucky border, was drawing pill addicts from all over the Eastern seaboard. People were throwing pill parties in the parking lot. Trading pills, buying, selling, injecting, snorting, the works.

This went on for years before the law could stop it. In February, more than two years after the DEA and FBI stormed the Sav-Rite, seizing cases of files, its owner, John T. Wooley, pleaded guilty to selling prescription pills by fraudulent means. Wooley, in cahoots with a pill mill “pain management” clinic that existed to sell scripts, was filling prescriptions as if the fate of mankind depended on it. The Kermit Sav-Rite, along with another one Wooley owned in a tiny hamlet about 10 miles from Kermit, together doled out enough hydrocodone, the main ingredient in Vicodin and Lortabs, for every man, woman and child in West Virginia (population: 1. 8 million). The Sav-Rites moved almost 3.2 million dosage units of hydrocodone in 2006, the year the U.S. attorney used to make a case, compared with the national average of 97,000. Wooley, who sold the Kermit store a few months ago (he lost the other to the feds’ raid), faces four years in prison and a $250,000 fine at his sentencing in May. At 76 years old, he could probably better afford the fine than the time. Agents who raided the Kermit store said cash drawers were so stuffed they couldn’t close.

But shutting down pill mills in these parts is like playing Whac-A-Mole: As soon as a lawless “pain management” clinic or pharmacy is smacked down, others spring up. Investigations take years before prosecutions can be secured.  And pill mills are only part of the problem. Most often, pill addicts get their drugs from friends or on the street. Drug gangs from cities like Detroit, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, have also moved in on the action, setting up drug “stores” in residences and other fronts. Almost fondly, people here recall when Oxycontin was jokingly called “hillbilly heroin ”and pill addicts were “pillbillies.” No one is joking now. What is happening in Appalachia, about 10 years into an explosion of prescription drug abuse, is so pervasive a problem that law enforcement officials say they cannot solve it alone.

The West Virginia newspapers offer daily examples of what the Mingo County sheriff, Lonnie Hannah, calls the “spinoffs of drug abuse”: Murders, assaults, robberies, burglaries, domestic violence, child abuse, child neglect, elder abuse, DUIs, overdose deaths. West Virginia, the ninth smallest state, has the highest rate of prescription drug overdose deaths in the nation.

Hannah estimates that two-thirds of the crimes and incidents his department handles are related to pill abuse. Chasing down pill dealing is more than enough work by itself. “It’s all over the county,” Hannah said, at his headquarters in the city of Williamson (nickname: Pill-iamson), the Mingo County seat. Authorities keep busting pill mills and dealers in the city of 3,000 residents, only to see them start up again. “Whenever we move in,” Hannah said, “they move around to someplace else.”

 
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