Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Drug crisis worsens in West Virginia

In March 2017, a House of Representatives subcommittee held a hearing on the drug problem in America. The hearing focused on what committee members identified as the “next wave in the opioid crisis” — fentanyl.

Later that year, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued an intelligence report identifying drug abuse and trafficking, particularly of opioids, as “a critical threat to West Virginia.” The report said, “the state had the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country in 2015, approximately 42 for every 100,000 people.”

Tragically, the situation has only gotten worse … much worse.

The Washington Post reported last week that preliminary government figures for the 12-month period ending in April put the drug overdose death rate in the state at 90 per 100,000, twice what it was six years ago, and the highest rate in the nation.

According to the figures, between April of 2020 and this past April, an average of four people were dying every day in West Virginia from a drug overdose. Nationally, 275 people died on average each day during that period from an overdose.

As the Post reported, the United States reached “another terrible milestone” when the government reported 100,000 drug overdose deaths during that time. “It is the first time that drug-related deaths have reached six figures in any 12-month period,” according to the Post.

One of the reasons for the rising death rate is the increased use of fentanyl. The synthetic opioid can be made cheaply in trafficker labs and is far more potent than heroin, making it appealing to addicts who are looking for a more powerful high.

But more often fentanyl is mixed with, or substituted for, other illicit drugs and then sold to users who are not aware of the potency of what they are taking. And the stuff is flooding into the United States.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram told the Post that authorities have seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl already this year, “enough to give every American a lethal dose of the powerful opioid.”

The drug epidemic in West Virginia has its roots in the millions of prescription opioid pills that flooded the state for a decade starting in 2006. But as that supply began to dry up, individuals with substance abuse disorders turned to other drugs, and fentanyl was there to fill the gap.

As the congressional subcommittee members predicted in 2017, fentanyl has become the “next wave” in the opioid crisis. Despite the increased efforts of law enforcement, first responders, drug counselors and therapists, loving family members and friends, more people are becoming addicted to the lethal drug, and more are dying.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.