Inside the Growing Prescription Pill Epidemic That's Ravaging Communities
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People in these parts have a word for pill abuse: "pilling." So much of it goes on that everyone has a story. They know someone who has abused or is abusing pills. They know parents who have lost custody of their children or neighbors who have lost good jobs or friends who have died because of them. They are shocked to hear that in some places in the country, say, San Francisco, pilling is neither a word nor a fact of life.
But that could be changing. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps warning, prescription drug abuse is spreading. Pills, especially Xanax, the anti-anxiety drug manufactured by Pfizer, and Vicodin, Loracet and Lortabs, highly addictive opioid painkillers familiar to anyone who has had a wisdom tooth removed, are being abused more and more, all over. 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.
You can find pockets of pill abuse from Orange County, Calif., to Staten Island, NY (sometimes now called Pill Island). Nationally, the abuse of prescription pain relievers, as evidenced by treatment submissions, has gone up 430 percent in the last decade, according to a new report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Washington, D.C. The report says states with the highest rise in prescription painkiller abuse include Maine, Vermont, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Arkansas, Rhode Island and West Virginia.
Last June, pill addiction on Long Island raged into the headlines when a 33-year-old Army veteran, David Laffer, shot and killed four people in a Medford pharmacy while he robbed the store for hydrocodone. A Vicodin addict, he had been getting the drug through doctor shopping — going from one doctor to another to sidestep the monthly limit for scripts — until he lost his job and his insurance.
“If there is a discussion of doctor shopping and prescription pill abuse,” Laffer said upon his sentencing to life without parole, “then perhaps some good can come from this.”
Laffer’s story lingered for barely more than a news cycle. But the spread of pilling may be the saving grace for Appalachia and the other mostly poor, mostly rural parts of the country where little white pills are leveling entire communities.
They offer the cautionary tale: Political leaders, health professionals and community groups in these parts who have been crying for help can show the rest of the country what can happen when pilling runs rampant.
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Once, maybe just a few years ago, domestic mayhem like the kind described in the March 28 Williamson Daily News would have been the talk of Mingo County for days on end.
A 911 call brought sheriff’s deputies to unincorporated Dingess, a cluster of houses off a gutted path that can only generously be called a road. A couple had been fighting over pills.
Officers found 32-year-old Charles Earnest Chapman bleeding from stab wounds over his left eye and his abdomen, blood all over the house, a small white pill and pill residue by a children’s play area, and two kids, barely toddlers, hanging out of wide-open windows. In the yard lay an empty bottle of Lortabs, 90 mg. April Dawn Vance, 24 years old, had stabbed Chapman and fled the house, she told officers, after Chapman had knocked her to the ground, beat her and choked her. The children became wards of the state, the couple wards of the county jail.
The story did not prompt a single comment in the local news. Nor did this home invasion, reported the same week: In Williamson, Mingo County’s big city, with 3,000 residents, a man arrested for robbing a house admitted to another robbery where he and a cohort stalked an 85-year-old man, busted into his house, beat him to the floor and stole $340 from his wallet. Police said the man admitted he used the money he stole from the elderly man to buy pills. The Williamson police chief advised residents to lock their doors and windows and be vigilant.