Downtown Pennington Gap. Photo by David Grace
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series about the struggles of the small, Southwest Virginia town.
When the Pennington Gap police chief arrived on duty the night of Sept. 28, 2012, he sent all officers home, according to FBI documents.
In the early morning hours, he contacted Lee County sheriff’s officers on duty to determine where they were located.
After determining they were not close, the police chief contacted his brother and two others to tell them it was clear.
At approximately 2:50 a.m. that night, the Rite-Aid pharmacy was robbed and about 5,000 pain pills were stolen.
The Pennington Gap police chief, William Bryan Young, was arrested less than a month later for selling Oxycodone to a police informant. He admitted to being a longtime addict and pleaded guilty in federal court to orchestrating the pharmacy robbery. Another Pennington Gap police officer was arrested for selling prescription pain killers a month later.
The story of the former Pennington Gap police chief illustrates just how deeply drugs have penetrated inside this small town of less than 1,800. If Pennington Gap is dying, as some residents believe, drugs may be killing it.
“The prescription drug problem has gotten tremendously worse,” said Dr. Robert Pack, professor & associate dean of Academic Affairs for the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University. “Recently, overdose deaths have passed motor vehicle deaths.”
Pack recently received a $2.2 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The grant is intended to fund a five-year interprofessional research program aimed at battling prescription drug abuse and misuse in the southern Appalachian region.
Drug abuse, specifically prescription drug abuse, is not confined to just Pennington Gap. It takes place in every small town or big city throughout the entire nation, Pack said. But Southwest Virginia is getting hit particularly hard.
“The problem is huge,” said Dr. Art VanZee, general internist at St. Charles community clinic. “It’s hard to find families that haven’t been directly or indirectly affected by this problem. The largest problem is prescription drug abuse.”
VanZee said as a region, the problem has only gotten worse.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, for every 100,000 people in Southwest Virginia, 588 people, or a rate of 7.42, died of a drug overdose between 2004 and 2009. Out of the five regions in Virginia, the southwest region, has the highest mortality rate from prescription drugs and easily doubles the number of overdose deaths compared to the other regions.
Pack said the prescription drug abuse craze started in the 1990s because physician groups made a significant push to treat pain. At the same time, powerful prescription pain medicines, like Lortab and OxyContin, hit the market.
When people become addicted to prescription drugs, crime tends to follow. According to a presentation made in 2012 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, since the mid-1990s, as much as 85 percent of all drug cases in Lee, Scott, Wise and Dickenson counties involve prescription drug abuse. All four of those counties account for one percent of the entire population of Virginia, but Virginia State Police spent 25 percent of their statewide, undercover purchase funds buying prescription medications from the area, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Lee County, the county where Pennington Gap is located, was designated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy as a high intensity drug trafficking area during the 2011 fiscal year. This designation is given by the Executive Office of the President and gives local and regional law enforcement officers the tools and training to investigate illegal drug distribution. Law enforcement officers associated with the high intensity drug trafficking area in Southwest Virginia estimate 6,000 prescription pills are seized in the area every two weeks, according the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
It can be hard to tell if someone is addicted to opioids. Most addicts can act normally and some can even be highly functioning, Pack said. He said it is the grip pills have on the addict that oftentimes leads them into trouble.
There are some treatment centers in Lee County, like the Lee County counseling center located in Jonesville. There is also a drug court in Wise County, Va., that serves Lee and Scott counties. VanZee doesn’t think that is enough.
“There are very limited treatment capacities in the region,” VanZee said. “The treatment represents a drop in the bucket compared to the problem.”
Recommendations have been made by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to help combat the prescription drug problem in Southwest Virginia. Some of those include increasing law enforcement resources, making better use of the prescription monitoring program, financially supporting existing drug courts, improving treatment and care of those with addiction, improving public education, using employee assistance programs as a recruiting tool and more.
VanZee agrees with most of these treatment recommendations, but said Southwest Virginia has taken a different road to treat drug addiction.
“Unfortunately, other options haven’t been pursued as public policy,” he said. “There hasn’t been a big push for public money or policy to treat addiction. ... The public policy in Southwest Virginia has been incarceration.”
There was a nonprofit long-term treatment option in Lee County named New Beginnings, but because of financial difficulty, the center has closed within the past year.
Eric Greene, the senior vice president for Frontier Health Virginia services, said there has been a big increase in self-help meetings in the region, especially in narcotics anonymous meetings.
Greene doesn’t think the problem with addiction in the area is worse. He thinks the problem has stayed the same in the last 10 years or may be slightly reduced.
He has a message for people in the region who may be struggling with addiction.
“Recovery is possible,” Greene said. “People do recover. People who were addicts do flourish.”
Frontier Health does have health offices in Lee County and has an addiction education center in the county as well. Some don’t think it’s enough to combat the problem of addiction.
VanZee says the lack of treatment is costing the taxpayers of Lee County.
“We should develop drug courts and residential treatment centers,” he said. “Instead, we have increased the size of our jail.”Next: Redemption? To see the first article in this series, click here.