The Pill Epidemic Is Ravaging West Virginia

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For the 1.8 million residents of the State of West Virginia, medical cannabis is not a reality. The reality is that West Virginia currently has the highest, per-capita, rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States—double the national average.

And, for the most part, those drugs are legal.

The West Virginia drug crisis and overdose epidemic have not been over-exaggerated. West Virginia receives over 130 million pain pills per year which averages to 186 pain pills per adult, per year, contributing to over 600 drug overdose-related deaths per year.

To combat the high rate of overdoses, the state has turned toward an aggressive enforcement of drug laws. However, prescription drugs are not illegal and are prescribed at a record rate in West Virginia—and not just by doctors.

The pharmaceutical industry’s hold on West Virginia is most apparent through its pain clinics.

Pain clinics are privately run clinics where a resident of West Virginia can come in, pay in cash and receive a prescription for pain medication. The individual can then fill that prescription at a locally owned “mom and pop” pharmacy, otherwise known as a “pill-mill.”

There are federal and state laws in place that require suspicious or large quantity orders of pain pills to be reported, however the self-policing West Virginia State Board of Pharmacy has not enforced these laws for over 10 years.

Investigative reporter Eric Eyre, of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, found that in one instance a Mingo County pill-mill was responsible for dispensing nine million oxycodone pills during the course of its two years in operation. Due, in part, to a federal sting operation the pill-mill was ultimately shut down. To put the staggering nine million pill figure into perspective, the Mingo County register lists 33,000 residents, but the town of Mingo is home to only 400 people.

As dependence on opioid-based pain medications builds, many sufferers find themselves turning to more potent and illegal solutions, such as methamphetamine and heroin.

Although the abuse and overdose rate in West Virginia for prescription and illegal narcotics is the highest in the U.S., the most common arrest for illegal substances in West Virginia is for cannabis possession. In fact, 55 percent of all drug arrests in West Virginia are for pot possession.

There is no arguing that cannabis is a threat to various industries, including paper, cotton, alcohol and the pharmaceutical industry. However, the negative campaign against cannabis has not dissuaded companies such as Bayer or GW Pharmaceuticals from applying and receiving patents and rights to distribute lab-made, cannabis-based medications, such as Sativex—a medication that is legal and has received permission to be marketed in the U.S. through Otsuka Pharmaceuticals.

Why then is cannabis still regarded as a dangerous drug? Why does West Virginia not legalize medical cannabis as a possible solution to the ongoing drug overdose and prescription pill epidemic currently plaguing the state?

West Virginia is also home to over 173,000 veterans who account for about 10 percent of the state’s population. According to a Veterans Affairs (VA) study published in 2011, Veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdose than non-veterans. The findings support the conclusion that veterans in the West Virginia are disproportionately affected by the overdose crisis. Recent studies have also shown that cannabis can be used to treat PTSD, anxiety, pain, and opioid addiction. Likewise, as of 2016, the United States government passed an amendment that allows VA doctors to discuss medical cannabis as an alternative to opioid treatment.

Unfortunately for the State of West Virginia, medical cannabis is not a possibility at this time. Newly elected Republican Speaker of the House, Tim Armstead, has stated, “We can’t legalize [cannabis] if the federal government is going to prosecute and enforce federal law.”

The leadership of West Virginia is looking for guidance from the federal government. Perhaps it is the leadership of West Virginia that should be providing guidance to the federal government instead.

Twenty-eight states, including the District of Columbia, have enacted medical marijuana laws to address similar problems in their state. The opportunity for West Virginia to lead and to provide compassionate care for its citizenry has never been better.

Get more involved in West Virginia politics with the Marijuana Policy Project, here!

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