“Pain Killer” Author Barry Meier on How West Virginia Became Ground Zero of Opioid Epidemic

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West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid-related deaths in the U.S. in 2016, making the state ground zero for a national opioid epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the past two decades. A record number of people in West Virginia died from overdosing on drugs in 2017. Between 2007 and 2012, the three biggest wholesalers of prescription drugs in the U.S. shipped some 780 million pain pills containing oxycodone or hydrocodone to the state of West Virginia alone—433 pills for every man, woman and child in the state. That’s according to Barry Meier, author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic,” published this week in an updated and expanded edition. We speak with Barry Meier, the first journalist to shed a national spotlight on the abuse of OxyContin.

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AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about ground zero, West Virginia. What was happening in some of these towns, in some of these small, independent drugstores—

BARRY MEIER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that were bringing in how much of this drug?

BARRY MEIER: They were bringing in huge amounts of this drug, I mean, tens and tens of millions of pills, annually, of this drug.

AMY GOODMAN: How did it start in West Virginia?

BARRY MEIER: I mean, OxyContin was being distributed to West Virginia, to Virginia and other states. Drugstores were prescribing it. But, you know, you had doctors there that were essentially running what are called pill mills. People would come in to the doctor and say, “Doctor, I hurt, I have pain.” “OK, fine, let me just write you a prescription. Oh, and, you know, OxyContin works really well for me, for my pain.” So, you had these doctors who were writing prescriptions for drugs at the request of the patient, which is, you know, a rare situation. And so then these patients, who are often drug abusers, would go to the pharmacy and get the prescriptions filled. Sometimes I—and, you know, in my travels on this story, I would go to small towns where the doctor had a pharmacy in his office. So he would write the prescription, you’d go next door to a pharmacy that he owned, and they would dispense the drug. So, you know, millions of these pills were being dispensed. They were ending up on the street. And these horror shows of crime and abuse and separated families and everything else would follow.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece, that you refer to in your piece. This is in the West Virginia Gazette-Mail. And it says, “In Southern West Virginia, many of the pharmacies that received the largest shipments of prescription opioids were small, independent drugstores like ones in Raleigh and Wyoming counties that ordered 600,000 to 1.1 million oxycodone pills a year. Or they were locally owned pharmacies in Mingo and Logan [counties], where wholesalers distributed 1.4 million to 4.7 million hydrocodone pills annually. By contrast, the Wal-Mart at Charleston’s Southridge Centre, one of the retail giant’s busiest stores in West Virginia, [was shipped] about 5,000 oxycodone and 9,500 hydrocodone pills each year.”

BARRY MEIER: Yeah. I mean, it’s startling. I think what—you know, one of the things that happened when the Justice Department did not crack down, really, on Purdue Pharma is it sent a signal that, “Drug companies, drug distributors, you can ship these drugs in whatever quantity you want, to wherever you want, and the worst that you’re going to face is a fine.” So they viewed it as a cost of doing business. There was never going to be any accountability for the corporate executives. It wasn’t going to be like the dealer or the drug addict who was going to end up in prison. All the corporate executives were going to have to pay was a small fine. And that was going to be a fraction of the profits that they were going to make by shipping huge quantities of the drugs to places like West Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation with Barry Meier, author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, after this break. I want to ask you about Art Van [Zee], a doctor in Virginia. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Give Me Daughters” by Jonathan Fire Eater. Member of, Stewart Lupton passed away this week at 43.

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