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West Virginia--nicknamed "The Mountain State" for its peaks that average out to the highest altitude east of the Mississippi River-- glows brilliantly in the fall as the leaves turn indescribable hues of red, gold and tawny yellow. But as entrancing as West Virginia's fall colors can be, a dark cloud looms large on the horizon.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a national problem, and no state in the US has been spared. But for West Virginia—which has always grappled with a large amount of poverty--the circumstances are particularly challenging. In 2018, West Virginia had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation at 17.8% and also the highest rate of death from drug overdose.
Given West Virginia's poverty rate and high addiction statistics, it would be easy to think that being poor causes addiction. But, when we look at the relationship between addiction and poverty, we quickly realize that it's a bit more complicated.
Poorer people are statistically more likely to struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, but this doesn't necessarily mean that poverty causes addiction, per se. In fact in some cases, financial troubles are the direct result of a substance use disorder.
Poverty does increase stress, and stress is well recognized as a factor for substance abuse and relapse. When you're struggling, there's a great temptation to turn to substances that make you feel good, like drugs and alcohol. Poverty also increases feelings of hopelessness and decreases self-esteem, which can leave some people more vulnerable to developing substance abuse disorders. But, addiction can cause people to slip into poverty too. Someone who is solidly middle class can fall into poverty if their addiction leads to poor work performance and job loss. It can also then be harder to get a new job, if someone has been fired from their old one. It's a vicious downward spiral.
Much like the rest of the United States, the scourge of opioid addiction has blown through West Virginia like a wildfire, laying waste to whole communities, and decimating families. In 2018, opioids were involved in 46,802 (a rate of 14.6) overdose deaths in West Virginia, making up nearly 70% of all overdose deaths. Opioid addiction is a particularly menacing foe because it's an addiction that can sneak up on people, even when they think they're being vigilant.
Prescription painkillers (like Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet) are highly addictive, in large part because they activate the powerful reward centers in the human brain. These drugs trigger the release of endorphins, (your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters) which mask or interrupt your perception of pain and enhance feelings of pleasure and happiness, creating a short-lasting but extremely powerful sense of well-being. It's only human to love the feeling! And, when an opioid starts to wear off, it's in our very human nature to crave the return of that wonderful sense that everything is perfect and as it should be. This is the first step on the path toward addiction, and it can happen even to people who think they're being careful.
The root of the opioid problem stems from doctors over-prescribing these highly addictive drugs when, in many cases, Tylenol, Excedrin or Advil will do. These drugs may seem safe, especially when doctors prescribe them, but just one or two of few these prescription pain pills can get people hooked and send them off on a downward spiral into the throes of full-on dependency.
Unfortunately, prescription painkiller abuse can often send people down far darker paths. Opioids often lead to heroin addiction, (as heroin is cheaper than the pills, and usually far easier to obtain on the street.) The spiral downward doesn't stop there. When certain street drugs like heroin aren't available, drug abusers often then turn to incredibly powerful and dangerous synthetics like fentanyl, which sooner or later result in a body bag. In the United States, synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths, responsible for 59% of all opioid-related decedents. 2015, Montana's annual average percentage of major depressive episode
A 2010 study took a look at the substances most commonly abused by West Virginia youth, and the numbers are concerning:
35% of West Virginia high school students (grades 9-12) report they've used marijuana in their lifetime. (This is particularly concerning because we know that marijuana can arrest brain development in young people and can also lead to the use or harder, even more harmful substances.
6% of high school students report they've cocaine (in any form.)
6% of West Virginia young people (ages 12-17) report using pain relievers in a way not directed by a doctor.
The good news for West Virginians struggling with drug and alcohol addiction is that help is only a few clicks away. The Mountain State is awash in resources, whether you just need counseling, a larger community-based approach, or full-on detox services. All it takes is the courage to take the first, terrifying step. Embrace the pain that got you here. Use it, own it, and move past it. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
West Virginia State Facts
West Virginia Population: 1,794,787
Law Enforcement Officers in West Virginia: 3,733
West Virginia Prison Population: 7,400
West Virginia Probation Population: 6,244
Violent Crime Rate National Ranking: 44
2004 Federal Drug Seizures in West Virginia
Cocaine: 7.4 kgs.
Heroin: 0 kgs.
Methamphetamine: 0.1 kgs.
Marijuana: 36.9 kgs.
Ecstasy: 0 tablets
Methamphetamine Laboratories: 84 (DEA, state, and local)
West Virginia Drug Situation: Largely rural, West Virginia's most pronounced drug problems involve the abuse and clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine, marijuana consumption and cultivation, and pharmaceutical drug diversion and abuse. Cocaine, crack and MDMA are available in most areas of the state. Drug distributors in West Virginia are uniquely placed to take advantage of sources of supply from both nearby eastern cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh or Washington, DC as well as large mid-western cities such as Columbus, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan.
Cocaine in West Virginia: Cocaine hydrochloride and crack cocaine are widely available in most West Virginia cities. Crack cocaine abuse generally remains confined to low and low-middle income individuals, but crosses all ethnic lines. There is some violence associated with the crack trade in the state. Cocaine availability is limited to large-retail or small-wholesale quantities. Source areas for cocaine are more varied than for other drugs consumed in the state and are largely based on the trafficker's location within West Virginia.
Heroin in West Virginia: Both the demand for and the availability of heroin are very limited throughout West Virginia. Small enclaves of long-term heroin addicts exist, who rely on one another to procure supplies of heroin from secondary source cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. The heroin sold in West Virginia typically retains the street/brand name and packaging of the Philadelphia or Baltimore-area supplier.
Methamphetamine in West Virginia: Clandestine methamphetamine laboratory activity in West Virginia has increased threefold in the past several years. Previously, methamphetamine manufacture appeared to be centered in the Panhandle region of the state, but has expanded to include other areas of northern West Virginia as well as some clandestine laboratory sites in the southeastern portion of the state bordering Kentucky and Virginia. In addition, methamphetamine distributors in West Virginia often share Mexican sources of supply with distributors in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley region.
Club Drugs in West Virginia: There is increased demand for MDMA throughout West Virginia, but abuse remains fairly concentrated near Morgantown, the location of West Virginia University. Demand for MDMA in college towns is sufficient to ensure that thousands of the pills reach West Virginia every month. Because of West Virginia's remote terrain, the area is purported to host numerous private "rave" parties but attendance at large-scale, publicized raves has been disappointing to promoters.Marijuana in West Virginia: Both imported and domestic, locally-cultivated marijuana pose a serious drug threat in West Virginia. Although the state ranks 37th in population in the U.S., West Virginia consistently ranks in the top ten states for marijuana eradication. West Virginia commonly serves as a source area for domestic marijuana. The Appalachia HIDTA was established initially to combat marijuana cultivation in the tri-state area - Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia - although that mission has expanded.
OxyContin and Other Prescription Drug Diversion in West Virginia: West Virginia abusers of the pharmaceutical drug OxyContin garnered a great deal of media coverage in the past year or more. West Virginia, along with neighboring and nearby states Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, were among the first areas in the United States to experience widely-publicized problems with OxyContin diversion and abuse. Pharmaceutical drug abuse in general, however, has always been an enormous concern in West Virginia, particularly in the southern region.
DEA Mobile Enforcement Teams: This cooperative program with state and local law enforcement counterparts was conceived in 1995 in response to the overwhelming problem of drug-related violent crime in towns and cities across the nation. There have been 409 deployments completed resulting in 16,763 arrests of violent drug criminals as of February 2004. There has been one MET deployment in the State of West Virginia since the inception of the program: Charles Town.
DEA Regional Enforcement Teams: This program was designed to augment existing DEA division resources by targeting drug organizations operating in the United States where there is a lack of sufficient local drug law enforcement. This Program was conceived in 1999 in response to the threat posed by drug trafficking organizations that have established networks of cells to conduct drug trafficking operations in smaller, non-traditional trafficking locations in the United States. Nationwide, there have been 22 deployments completed resulting in 608 arrests of drug trafficking criminals as of February 2004. There have been no RET deployments in the State of West Virginia.
Other Enforcement Initiatives in West Virginia: The Appalachia HIDTA provides support to enforcement initiatives in the southern region of the state.
DEA Special Topics: The Washington/Baltimore HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) supports and assists in the funding of a multi-agency enforcement task force and an Intelligence group in Washington, DC. In addition, the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department has its own Major Narcotics Branch, and other drug and violent crime-related enforcement operations in place.