CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We can't understand why so many young people crave to obliterate their minds with drugs, often wrecking their lives and their jobs, sometimes landing themselves in jail. It's pointless self-destruction, almost a form of suicide. The problem is extreme in Southern West Virginia, where both meth labs and painkiller pill addiction abound.
McDowell is America's worst county for pill overdose deaths, and the Mountain State reportedly ranks second-worst among states. One report says 152,000 West Virginians suffer pill addiction, and drug overdose is the state's leading cause of death for people under 45.
"The devastation wrought by prescription drug abuse on Appalachian communities is simply heartbreaking," White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told Gov. Tomblin and other regional leaders at an assembly. "Prescription drug abuse is claiming too many lives, threatening public safety and placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of economic prosperity in Appalachia."
Many "pillbillies" roam from doctor to doctor with complaints of back pain, getting rubber-stamp painkiller prescriptions -- then they roam from pharmacy to pharmacy, filling each prescription rapidly as many times as possible. Most of them have no health insurance, so they pay cash for the pills, then peddle them to fellow addicts.
When a genuine patient with medical coverage obtains a painkiller, the transaction enters an electronic database -- immediately informing other pharmacists that the prescription already has been filled. But cash purchases don't reach the database, thus pillheads can fill one prescription several times.
Drug-tracking laws passed by the 2012 Legislature supposedly curbed this criminal process. But it isn't good enough for West Virginia sheriffs. The state Sheriffs Association held a news conference last week to demand a federal crackdown that would enter all cash-and-carry prescription purchases into the database -- and let police officers see who is buying large quantities of painkillers, and which doctors are prescribing them.
The director of the state Pharmacy Association replied that current electronic technology won't allow immediate entry of cash purchases. He also worried that this step might violate patient privacy.
Many political leaders and law-enforcement officials are striving to reduce the deadly pill plague. We hope they support the sheriffs' reform plan. Honest patients who fill prescriptions only once would have nothing to fear. The crackdown would affect just those who scurry from pharmacy to pharmacy, paying cash.
As the national drug czar said, the horrible pill epidemic is heartbreaking, so every step to curtail it should be tried.