Close

Hope, and a plea for help, amid West Virginia’s drug epidemic

President Trump has declared the drug epidemic a public health emergency. Rural West Virginians are wondering when the help will arrive.

By Daniel Allott

PETERSBURG, West Virginia — When Brenda Sams was released from prison last April, she feared what would happen upon returning home. The United States penitentiary, Hazelton, where she served 21 months for conspiracy to distribute drugs, had become her “safe space” away from drugs and the culture surrounding it.

Before her imprisonment, Brenda was shooting up two grams of heroin a day. Her addiction had such a hold on her that she would sometimes send ice water coursing through her veins just to experience the ritual of the needle.

In prison, Brenda had gotten clean, received her GED, and started going to church. “I didn’t know how to do it on the outside,” she said when I met her at the Petersburg Dairy Queen where she is a manager. “I prayed to God and I asked God to surrender myself.”

Brenda had reason to be fearful. One morning shortly after her return to Petersburg, she got a text from a local dealer, Larry, who said he’d left her a surprise in her parents’ mailbox. She walked out to the mailbox, opened it, and looked inside. She found an oxycodone pill, an implicit invitation to start using again. “I guess he thought I was going to pick up where I left off,” Brenda said.

But Brenda didn’t pick up where she left off. In the year and a half since her release, Brenda has gotten a job, made new friends, and become certified in peer-recovery coaching and suicide prevention. Most importantly to Brenda, her parents have given her back their house keys, a remarkable gesture given that they once feared she might kill them in her quest to get high.

Since leaving prison last April, Brenda Sams has gotten a job, made new friends, and become certified in peer-recovery coaching and suicide prevention. Most importantly to Brenda, her parents have given her back their house keys, a remarkable gesture given that they once feared she might kill them in her quest to get high.

Ray Blum, who owns the Dairy Queen store Brenda helps manage, has hired several recovering addicts, a necessity, he said, given the dearth of available workers in this town of 2,500 people.

Those who struggle with drug addiction often find it difficult to work, in part because drug convictions scare off potential employers. A recent study suggests that one-fifth to one-quarter of the reduction in labor force participation in recent years is due to opioid use.

Ray Blum inside the Dairy Queen store he owns in Petersburg, West Virginia. Blum has hired several recovering addicts, a necessity, he said, given the dearth of available workers in this city of 2,500 people.

About 140 people a day nationwide die of drug overdoses, making it the leading cause of death of Americans under 50 years old. West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate is the highest in the country and nearly three times the national average.

One of the main causes of the crisis is the over-prescription of opioid painkillers that started in the late 1990s. An investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail found that between 2007 and 2012, 780 million doses of the opioids hydrocodone and oxycodone were shipped to West Virginia, about 433 pain pills for every man, woman, and child in the state. The investigation further found that the two drugs killed at least 1,700 West Virginians over that period.

Just a few steps from Blum’s Dairy Queen is Judy’s Drug Store, which was sued last December by West Virginia’s attorney general for dispensing too many prescription painkillers. The complaint charged that nearly 2 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone were dispensed to a three-county region of just 34,000 residents.

Judy’s Drug Store in downtown Petersburg was sued last December by West Virginia’s attorney general for dispensing too many prescription painkillers. The complaint charged that nearly 2 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone were dispensed to a three-county region of just 34,000 residents.

I asked Brenda’s friend Adam Kesner, another Dairy Queen employee with a history of addiction, what kinds of drugs can be found in Petersburg. “Anything and everything, my man,” he said. 

On Oct. 26, President Trump declared the drug epidemic a public health emergency. Trump said his administration would expand access to telemedicine services, spend “lots of money” to push “very hard the concept of non-addictive painkillers” and, to that end, launch “really tough, really big, really great advertising so we get to people before they start.”

On the day of Trump’s declaration, my brother Jordan and I talked to nearly a dozen former addicts, parents and relatives of addicts, and recovery coaches at Welton Park, on the outskirts of Petersburg.

Several themes ran through many of the stories we heard: early drug experimentation leading to spiraling addiction, which, aided by abusive spouses and doctors ever-willing to prescribe pain pills, left a trail of unemployment, suicide attempts, and broken relationships.

August Parker told us of how drugs became a cornerstone of her life after she began experimenting with them in her early teens. Even her wedding, to a drug addict when she was 18, revolved around her addiction. “We got married on 4/20. We made sure the wedding was at five o’clock, so that everybody could get high,” she said. A few years later, she and her husband were arrested for manufacturing methamphetamines, an episode that sparked a turnaround in their lives.

At Welton Park on the outskirts of Petersburg, former drug addicts spoke about their experiences. Several themes ran through many of the stories: early drug experimentation leading to spiraling addiction, which, aided by abusive spouses and doctors ever-willing to prescribe pain pills, left a trail of unemployment, suicide attempts and broken relationships.

Roger Dodd got hooked early too, pilfering Percocet pain pills from his grandmother when he was just 9. “She’d get out of bed, and she could barely walk,” he recalled. “About 15 minutes after taking that magic little pill, she was hopping and dancing and singing, and so I wanted to try it.”

That experimentation sparked decades of drug and alcohol abuse. “I just destroyed a lot of lives along the way,” Roger said. “I just left behind this like, like a wake, like a boat does except mine was broken hearts and shattered marriages, three of them. I let my addiction take its hold on everyone else.” 

Recovering addicts place a lot of emphasis on peer-recovery coaching, mentoring from someone who has struggled with addiction. “Addicts want to know that you‘ve been where they’ve been,” Bob Borror, a 68-year-old recovering alcoholic, explained later. “It’s easy to say, ‘buck up.’ But if you’re an addict, you’re more honest with them and they’re more honest with you.”

Recovering addicts place a lot of emphasis on peer-recovery coaching, mentoring from someone who has struggled with addiction. “Addicts want to know that you‘ve been where they’ve been,” said Bob Borror, a 68-year-old recovering alcoholic. “It’s easy to say, ‘buck up.’ But if you’re an addict, you’re more honest with them and they’re more honest with you.”

All of the people we met at Welton Park dismissed the effect a punitive approach to the drug crisis would have. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” was the phrase we heard over and over. 

“Making felons out of people who have a disease is not the way to get out of it,” said Roger. If you arrested people who had cancer, is that going to cure them? No, it’s not. You offer them treatment.”

Many of the people we spoke with lamented the dearth of treatment options available to recovering addicts in the area. “As many times as I went in front of a judge and went to jail, I was never offered rehab,” Brenda said. “Not one time. I’ve never been to rehab. I’ve never gotten anything like that. I’ve done all of this with support from my family.”

I asked if anyone had a message they’d like to give to President Trump. Roger spoke up. “You consider yourself the people’s president,” he said.

“You keep saying you’re not [about] politics as usual, that you’re for the people. Well, bring yourself down here and talk to these people. Take your tie off, get all your cabinet members, take your suits and your ties off, come down here, sit down and listen. Don’t tell us what to do. Listen to us. Then maybe you’ll know the right way to spend the money.”

A couple of weeks later, we met with Cindy Corbin, executive director of Hampshire County Pathways, a recovery center for people with substance abuse and mental health problems. After showing us around her facility, which includes a drug recovery home for women, Corbin told us there’s been a huge increase in demand for recovery services since the organization opened in 2012. “It used to be we would help place someone in treatment every other month,” she said. “Now we get 12 or 13 a month and that doesn’t include people who call in. 

Cindy Corbin, executive director of Hampshire County Pathways, said she’s constantly worried about losing recovery coaches to Sheetz, because the gas station chain can afford to pay them more and offers health insurance.

Advocates are waiting to see whether Congress will devote additional funds to address the crisis through the year-end budget currently being negotiated. President Trump’s public health emergency declaration did not unlock new federal funds. But federal agencies were directed to devote more of their budgets to the problem.

And many had already been spending more. In September, the Department of Health and Human Services committed $144.1 million in additional grants to address opioid abuse, including funding for first responders and for pregnant and postpartum women. The same month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded more than $28.6 million in additional funding and the Justice Department nearly $59 million.  

But those numbers pale in comparison to the costs of the crisis. The White House Council of Economic Advisers recently estimated that the true cost in 2015 was $504 billion, six times higher than the previous estimate.

Corbin stressed how desperately her organization and others like it need funding. She said she’s constantly worried about losing recovery coaches to Sheetz, because the gas station chain can afford to pay them more and offers health insurance.

Corbin said President Trump and other politicians have talked a lot about combating the drug crisis but haven’t devoted much money to it. “I want to see the money. Show me the money,” she said. “Show me where you’re going to put the money in helping the United States with this horrible epidemic. Let’s get it into treatment, let’s get it into recovery services.”

Later we met with Bryan Ward, sheriff of nearby Hardy County, who estimated that 95 percent of property crimes in his county are drug-related. Ward said he doesn’t know a family in his county of 14,000 people that hasn’t been directly affected by the drug epidemic.

Ward says the root of the problem is a decaying culture in which drug addiction no longer carries the stigma it once did. “The best chance of recovery is for people to lean on God,” he said. “Almost all the people who have pulled themselves through have done so because of faith. We are never going to be able to arrest your way out of the problem, because there’s a never-ending supply of possible users.”

“We are never going to be able to arrest your way out of the [drug] problem, because there’s a never-ending supply of possible users,” said Hardy County Sheriff Bryan Ward.

Later, driving around Petersburg, Brenda showed us some of her old haunts—the house where she tried heroin for the first time and the place where she caught her federal charge. She pointed out Larry’s house, saying that he still deals. “People try to call the cops but they don’t do anything about it,” she said.

Back at her apartment behind Dairy Queen, Brenda and her parents told us their story. She started taking pain pills when she was 24 because they made her feel comfortable in her own skin for the first time in her life. “I could even look in the mirror and smile once in awhile,” she said about the effect the pills had.

Heroin took the high to another level. “The love of my life, my best friend…the people that loved me, they couldn’t compare to the heroin, and I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Since her recovery, Brenda says she knows what she must do to stay clean, including steering clear of old friends and staying close to her parents. But she realizes she hasn’t beaten her addiction, and knows herself well enough to understand what relapse would mean. “If I ever lost my clean date—August 29, 2014—I don’t think I would try going through this all again,” she said about recovery. “I would go to heroin overdose and end it.”

Brenda’s mother, Dianna, said she has seen her daughter transform for the better in the last couple of years. “Before she was clean, you never knew what she was going to do. You didn’t know if she was going to kill ya’,” she said. “One time, she would stand there flipping a knife. And we got to thinking, ‘Oh lord, is she going to try to stab one of us because we don’t have the money to give her?’”

“But we never ever gave up on her,” Dianna added through tears. “And we can’t tell her enough that we love her and that we are so, so proud of her and so glad to have her home.”

Brenda’s parents’ unconditional love is an immense help in her recovery. “I always knew at the end of the day that they would be there,” Brenda said. “Just to have them back and have the house key again and make them proud of me is worth sobriety to me.” 

Read More: Grant County

Click to read the next story in the series, or share the article on social media.