‘It Was Their Normal’: Opioid Shipments Saturated ‘Vulnerable’ Communities Across the Country

Written for project The Opioid Effect, a report collaborative between West Virginia University, Morgan State University and Brigham Young University, alongside Chloe Johnson (MSU) and Lauren Lethbridge (BYU). Read the full piece here.

In the span of six years, more than 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were shipped to pharmacies across the country, enough to supply every U.S. adult and child with 36 pills per year.  

The analysis comes from a July report released by the Washington Post, whose reporters were able to gain access to years of opioid distribution records after a federal court decision. 

Over the six-year period, from 2006 to 2012, drug manufacturers saturated pharmacies in central Appalachia, including West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, where overdose death rates skyrocketed to as many as eight times the national average during the same time period. As a result, the region was coined “the opioid belt.” 

But central Appalachia wasn’t alone. More than 212 million prescription pain pills were shipped to Baltimore County, Maryland. Utah County, Utah, received more than 96 million pills.

The vast number of pills shipped into communities who have been struggling for years with the downstream impacts of the opioid epidemic aren’t surprising to many people who live there, especially in West Virginia, inner-city Baltimore and rural parts of Utah. What is revelatory, however, according to Steven Rich, database editor for the Investigations Unit at the Washington Post, are the comparisons communities can now make across the country.  

Credit: The Washington Post

“I think a lot of people in these communities are probably seeing where they are and thinking that it’s bad or thinking that everybody else might have it this bad…I think it’s very important for context to know just how bad these states were, these counties were. For the number of pills that were flowing in, what they were seeing was abnormal, even though it was their normal,”Rich said in an interview with 100 Days in Appalachia earlier this year.

The database, compiled by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, was released in the midst of a federal court case, where more than 2,000 communities from around the country are suing prescription drug manufacturers and distributors to help pay for the burdening costs of the epidemic, which include rehabilitation, jail and morgue costs. 

The first of these trials was set to take place October 21 in Cleveland, Ohio, however, hours before the trial, four major pharmaceutical companies agreed to a $260 million payout to two Ohio counties. The thousands of other lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors are still on track to go to trial, although the federal judge overseeing the consolidated cases is encouraging the parties to reach a settlement for all of the cases.

“What we really want to do here is use the data as a guide to help us to find the most vulnerable communities and really tell their stories, because the numbers, they tell you how bad it is, but they can’t actually tell you how bad it is,” Rich said.

Read the full piece on The Opioid Effect’s website.

Top image: Photo: Toby Talbot, AP Photo

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