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Rising Above Heroin Addictions in Appalachia

Stacy Emminger holds the death certificate for her son, Anthony, who was addicted to heroin. His death was marked as a multidrug toxicity in Pennsylvania.
Stacy Emminger holds the death certificate for her son, Anthony, who was addicted to heroin. His death was marked as a multidrug toxicity in Pennsylvania.

It's an unsettling reality in Appalachia. Many people, young and old, rich and poor, are falling victim to heroin addiction.

True, heroin addiction is spreading in communities across the country. But here in Appalachia, people in remote rural areas have an even more difficult time finding access to treatment options.

Subscribe to our Inside Appalachia podcast here or on iTunes here, or on Soundcloud here or on Stitcher here.

(Scroll down to the bottom for a special Appalachian memory)

While other drugs may claim more lives per capita, heroin overdose deaths are trending upward at an alarming rate. The available reports and data indicate that overdose deaths involving heroin are increasing rapidly, while overdose deaths involving prescription painkillers are leveling off or declining in many parts of the country. The Centers for Disease Control report that "Nationally, heroin overdose deaths claimed more than 8,250 lives in 2013 , an increase of almost 40 percent since 2012.”

In this episode, several stories are from a special report, called “The Needle and the Damage Done: West Virginia’s Heroin Epidemic”. We explore how heroin came to be so heavily abused in West Virginia, and in surrounding areas throughout our region. Glynis Board helps explain how the heroin epidemic started, in West Virginia.

The earliest reference to opium growth and use is in 3,400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia). The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the "joy plant." The Latin botanical name, Papaver somniferum, means "sleep-bringing". The production of opium itself has not changed since ancient times. Raw opium is extracted by slitting the seed pod vertically allowing the sap to run, then dry, then be scraped off.
Credit Wikimedia Commons
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The earliest reference to opium growth and use is in 3,400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia). The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the "joy plant." The Latin botanical name, Papaver somniferum, means "sleep-bringing". The production of opium itself has not changed since ancient times. Raw opium is extracted by slitting the seed pod vertically allowing the sap to run, then dry, then be scraped off.

What is an Overdose?

Dr. Derek Harman is a young doctor but he has seen his share of overdoses, not all of them from heroin. During this interview, Dr. Harman uses the words "heroin" and "opioids" interchangeably. So what does it mean to overdose from heroin? What really happens to the body? West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Beth Vorhees met with Dr. Derek Harman to get an answer to that question.

Do we really know how bad the heroin problem is?

In Pennsylvania, it is estimated that opiates, like heroin, killed at least 1,300 people last year. Heroin overdoses are also on the rise in other states in our region. But figuring out the size and scope of the problem is harder than one might think. For this next story, we’re going to Pennsylvania, which, like many states, does not require reporting of specific details on drug overdoses, and whatever other information is available is at least two years old. Ben Allen from WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania reports

Using Community Education and Naloxone is Working in North Carolina

In Wilkes County, North Carolina, people came together to fight the drug overdose issue together. There' they tried something, called Project Lazarus- which uses a community-based treatment approach as a way to combat high rates of drug overdoses. We hear from Fred Brason, founder of Project Lazarus, talking about the success they had in dealing with the drug overdose issue.

Brason says that one of the ways Project Lazarus has been able to reduce the community’s overdose rate is by helping to allow more people in the community to have access to a drug called Naloxone, a non-narcotic that can save the lives of those who overdose on heroin or prescription painkillers. Thanks to WUNC for sharing their interview with Brason from 2014. Click here to hear the rest of that interview.

Kentucky and West Virginia Allow Easier Access to Naloxone

Now to Kentucky where, according to WUKY news in Lexington, this Legislative session, Kentucky became one of the first states to let pharmacists dispense Naloxone without a prescription. Naloxone is a medicine that reverses the effects of narcotics. The Kentucky Board of Pharmacy has approved an emergency regulation for Naloxone. The law gives pharmacists the option to dispense the drug without a doctor's prescription.

In West Virginia, a law went into effect this past week that allows family members of addicts to get Naloxone with a prescription- as an emergency precaution in case a person overdoses. The law is called the Opioid Antagonist Act.

A version of the bill was introduced by Republican leadership in both the House and Senate the very first day of this legislative session, making it one of the top priorities for lawmakers. But as it worked its way through the legislative process, lawmakers approved a version of the bill backed by Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin. Ashton Marra explains the bill itself and why it was a priority for both parties.Listen to those who have been affected by addiction and how they found help.

Drug Courts are Saving Lives in West Virginia

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. And as Roxy Todd reports, the program is doing more than saving the state money on prison costs. It’s saving lives.

In the interest of disclosure, Judge Aloi, who was featured in this story, is a close, personal friend of Roxy Todd.

New West Virginia Facility Expected to Save Lives

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Credit Jessica Lilly
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As access to addiction treatment in larger cities grows, rural communities are still struggling with a lack of resources. But in Bluefield, W.Va. a much anticipated alternative for recovery is just days away from opening. It’s a non-medical treatment option, which means there is no Suboxone, or Methadone for addicts as they detox. There also aren’t any doctors or medical professionals. But there is a staff of about seven people. If there is concern for seizures, like from alcohol, they send them to the hospital for a few days. This new long-term treatment facility will make 20 beds available to males who have had a run in with the law. Some folks in Mercer County believe this non-medical, long-term treatment facility will be a game changer for the region.

Biscuits and Gravy and the Garden of Eden

To end our show, we hear from Rance Garrison and learn about his strong connection to Appalachia. He grew up in Lee County, Virginia and is currently an AmeriCorps VISTA at WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky. He sent us this memory about his family’s home place, and why he feels strongly about growing roots and staying in Appalachia.

Music in today’s show was provided by Jake Scheppes and Matt Jackfert. Find us on Twitter @InAppalachia, @WVJessicaYLilly, or @RoxyMTodd

Subscribe to our Inside Appalachia podcast here or on iTunes here, or on Soundcloud here or on Stitcher here.

Copyright 2015 West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Jessica Lilly
Jessica Lilly covers southern West Virginia for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program and during afternoon newscasts.
Roxy Todd
Roxy Todd is a reporter and co-producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.