The Needle and the Damage Done: West Virginia's Heroin Epidemic

This ongoing series takes in-depth look at the heroin epidemic spreading across West Virginia. From the story of the addict who could no longer get prescription narcotics on the street, the emergency room physician who cares for overdose patients, and the lawmakers working to reverse the trend--these are the voices and stories of West Virginians impacted by heroin.

Has heroin affected you or someone you know? Share your story here.

needle exchange sign
Mary Meehan / Ohio Valley ReSource

Sitting on top of the Bible on Pastor Brad Epperson’s desk at the Clay City First Church of God is a list of goals for his small congregation written in a looping cursive hand.

“Our community ought to see the love of God in us, not just by our understanding of a compassionate Gospel, but our public acts of love,” is near the top.

Epperson was born and raised in Powell County in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.

AP file photo

Programs that use medication to treat substance abuse are now more tightly regulated under West Virginia law.

The law endorsed by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the GOP-led Legislature took effect Friday, June 10.

Obama
Steve Helber / AP Photo

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Senator Joe Manchin join President Obama at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Georgia Tuesday. According to a press release, Obama will announce Administrative actions to further the fight against the drug epidemic.

The Administrative actions include expanding access to treatment by releasing $94 million to 271 Community Health Centers to increase substance use disorder treatment services. West Virginia community health centers in Huntington, Weirton, Dawes, Scott Depot and Rock Cave will receive a total of $1.7 million in funding.

Community members met in Ohio County this week to talk about developing a program that would allow non-professionals to administer life-saving drugs to someone overdosing on pain pills or heroin. A similar program began in the Eastern Panhandle in September, and organizers report it’s already saving lives.


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Seventy people in Cabell County died in 2015 of drug overdoses.

WSAZ-TV reports that the numbers were tallied by the city of Huntington's Office of Drug Control Policy. The office found that there were more than 900 drug overdoses last year in Huntington and Cabell County.

The number of reported drug overdoses in 2015 was greater than the total number of ODs from 2012 to 2014.

In recent years, West Virginia has ranked near the top or at the top among states in terms of overdose deaths in the U.S.

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West Virginia has the highest rate of youth drug overdose deaths in the country, according to a new national report.

The study, produced by the non-profit Trust for America’s Health, found that nationwide, youth drug overdose deaths have more than doubled among people aged 12-25.

National Governors Association

With President Obama’s visit to Charleston just two short weeks ago, people and organizations across the state have responded to the President’s call to fight drugs and overdose deaths in West Virginia.

On Wednesday, Governor Tomblin continues this fight and travels to Martinsburg to host a summit with law enforcement and the community on substance abuse in the area.

Roxy Todd / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In West Virginia, the number of heroin overdoses has increased almost five-fold since 2010. So today, President Obama will visit West Virginia to host a community discussion about what's needed to help prevent and stop drug addiction across the U.S.

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U.S. District Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld, II, just announced the launch of an organized effort to combat addiction problems in Marion, Monongalia and Harrison counties: an Addiction Action Plan. It’s an extension of an initiative that began in the Northern Panhandle late last year in response to a resurgence of heroin use in the region.


Sunday, September 13 Declared Day of Hope

Jul 29, 2015

On West Virginia Morning, Beth Vorhees talks with the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia and the Executive Director of the state Council of Churches about the Day of Hope to be held in September.  That’s  on West Virginia Morning from West Virginia Public Radio news – telling West Virginia’s story.


Jessica Lilly

A much anticipated alternative for addiction recovery is now a reality in southern West Virginia. The Four Seasons Recovery Center in Mercer County is part of the West Virginia Justice Reinvestment Act. 

Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography

In the world of medication-assisted substance abuse treatment, there are three prescription drugs that are the most widely known: methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol.

Traditional Opioid Agonists

Methadone and Suboxone have been the most widely used drugs in addiction therapy in West Virginia. Both are synthetic opioid-based medications that react with opioid receptors in the brain just as heroin or prescription narcotics would. These drugs are often used to wean people off of illicit drugs like heroin or prescription painkillers like oxycodone.

pills
Wikimedia Commons

Despite taking many steps to prevent injuries, West Virginia ranks highest for the number of injury-related deaths in the United States. That’s according to a new report published this week that looks state-by-state at injury prevention policy.

Many of the injury-related deaths that put West Virginia in the lead nationally are attributed to drug overdoses, according to data compiled by Trust for America's Health (TFAH). The organization published the new report along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its title: The Facts Hurt: A State-By-State Injury Prevention Policy Report

Roxy Todd / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

West Virginia has the nation's worst rate of drug overdose deaths. It started with prescription painkillers, and now is increasingly fueled by heroin.

On this week's "The Front Porch," we debate what's causing the epidemic, and what might actually work in curbing it.

A panel of law enforcement, health and substance abuse specialists will discuss what's next in West Virginia's fight against substance abuse at the West Virginia Addiction Summit in Charleston Monday.

Hosted by Del. Chris Stansbury of Kanawha County, the panel includes:

Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting


While law enforcement officials, lawmakers and medical professionals are all scrambling to find solutions to West Virginia’s heroin epidemic, EMTs and paramedics across the state are receiving calls almost daily, rushing to the homes of those who’ve made it to the very edge with their addiction.

“Most people, they hear about the problem with heroin. But, I don’t know that they fully understand and can fathom how much of an epidemic it truly is and how many lives are affected by it so adversely,” said Captain Chad Jones, a paramedic and shift supervisor for the Charleston Fire Department.

Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography

In some counties in the state, deaths from heroin overdoses have tripled in the past three years, drawing the attention of both lawmakers and law enforcement looking for ways to combat the problem.

At the statehouse, lawmakers approved the Opioid Antagonist Act during the 2015 Legislative session. The bill expands access to the overdose reversing drug Naloxone, allowing police officers to carry it and also family members and friends of addicts to seek a prescription for the medication.

Naloxone, if followed by more intense medical treatment, can save a person’s life giving them a second chance, according to Joseph Garcia, Gov. Tomblin’s legislative affairs director. Tomblin backed the bill.

But members of both the House and Senate leadership say the new law alone will not decrease the number of heroin overdose fatalities. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael said that ‘more’ should include a focus on rehabilitative services and a program to drug test those on public assistance.

Jessica Lilly

While other parts of the state are seeing a rapid increase in heroin overdoses, southern West Virginia continues to battle a prescription pill problem. As access to addiction treatment in the state’s larger cities like Charleston and Huntington grows, rural parts of West Virginia are still struggling with a lack of resources. But in Bluefield, a much anticipated alternative for  recovery is just days away from opening, bringing 20 male beds to southern West Virginia. It’s not much, but those involved expect it to make a difference in the community.

Roxy Todd / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Drug courts are becoming a more and more popular option for judges dealing with minor drug offenders in West Virginia. Instead of being incarcerated, offenders go through a highly structured, highly monitored rehabilitative process overseen by a probation officer and counselor.

Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

As law enforcement officials are increasingly turning their attention to the growing problem with heroin in West Virginia, many of them have strong opinions on the legislation that provides greater access to Naloxone, an opioid antagonist that combats the effects of an overdose. That bill, which goes into effect Wednesday, will allow police officers to carry the medicine. But some law enforcement officials believe that increased access enables heroin users.

A law that goes into effect on May 27 allows police officers and those close to addicts to carry the opioid overdose antidote drug Naloxone. While law enforcement officials generally agree that it’s a good idea to carry the drug, there are some questions about safety, training and exactly how the new law will be implemented.

“I totally agree with trying to address the problem at its root but there are a lot of other issues that have to be overcome along the way,” Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said. 

Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography

As Republican lawmakers prepared to take the helm of both the state House of Delegates and Senate for the first time in more than 80 years this legislative session, they were questioned over and over again about their priorities. Those priorities became clear on the first day of the session when Speaker Tim Armstead and Senate President Bill Cole introduced the first 15 bills their party would pursue. 

Number nine of those 15: the Opioid Antagonist Act. 

Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting / via Tableau

A bill aiming to stave off West Virginia's problems with heroin and prescription opioid overdose deaths goes into effect Wednesday. The Opioid Antagonist Act expands access to the life saving drug Naloxone, allowing addicts and family members the ability to purchase the medicine through a prescription.

What is an Overdose? ER Doctor Explains

May 25, 2015
Beth Vorhees / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Derek Harman practices family medicine in Logan County, but he's also been an emergency room physician. He got his medical degree in 2008 from the School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg, and completed his residency in Virginia, in 2013.

 

Even at a young age, Harman has seen his fair share of overdoses.

Heroin is a respiratory depressant, and Harman said people who overdose can have shallow breath and a low number of breaths.

Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting / via Tableau

As the stories airing this week on West Virginia Morning illustrate, West Virginia is in the midst of a heroin epidemic. According to  the state Department of Health and Human Resources'  Drug Overdose Database, heroin has claimed the lives of more than 600 West Virginians since 2001. 

But what else can we glean from this information? When did it all begin? And which counties are seeing the highest rate of deaths related to heroin overdoses?  

The interactive map below paints a dark picture of the state's problem with the drug in recent years and also shows other key facts as medical professionals, emergency officials, law enforcement officers and lawmakers all attempt to find solutions. 

Wikimedia Commons

The opium poppy is a source of beauty in gardens and fields all over the country and the world. But it’s also a source of pain relief and when abused, death.  In recent years death tolls from heroin, a derivative of the poppy, have tripled nationwide, and the numbers are just as stark here in West Virginia.

Frontline PBS recently tackled the poppy’s intimate connection to humans, tracing it back thousands of years. It started with the Sumerians in 3400 B.C., who passed it to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Chinese, British, and in 1905 Congress banned U.S. imports of opium - the derivative of poppy seeds and base of heroin. Little good it did. A black market bloomed thereafter and of course, the 5,000-year-old obsession with the opium poppy continues.

But today our region of the world is in the grips of an especially nasty resurgence of heroin addiction.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting

If you’ve been paying attention to our news output here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting as of late, you’ve probably noticed an increased focus on data and digital journalism. Sure, we tell stories on the radio, but emerging technology and innovations have inspired us to present our stories in a new and interesting way.

As part of The Needle and the Damage Done, we wanted to allow our audience to get a better understanding of West Virginia’s heroin problem.

  Seemingly everyone in West Virginia has been affected by the heroin epidemic in the state. There are addicts themselves, family members struggling to find them help, the doctors, nurses and paramedics on the front lines trying to save lives and lawmakers and law enforcement officials trying to put a stop to it all--no one seems to be spared.