HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html How One Town Got Hooked
Pubdate: Mon, 09 Apr 2001
Source: Newsweek (US)
Copyright: 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
Author: Debra Rosenberg


Hazard, Ky., has seen its share of hard times.

But nothing prepared the gritty hamlet for the onslaught of the drug 
OxyContin. Now the abuse is an epidemic.

No one could blame Joshua Coots for wanting to escape. Bored and 
frustrated, the pale, soft-spoken teen felt trapped in the tiny town of 
Hazard, Ky. The place didn't offer him many options.

Left behind by the economic boom, the town of 5,500 still depends largely 
on the aging coal and timber industries.

EMPTY STOREFRONTS DOT the depressed Main Street. Highway strip malls are 
about the only places left to go for a night out. Coots couldn't imagine a 
lifetime hauling logs or toiling in the mines, where his father once 
worked. Instead, he took a job as a telemarketer. In his off hours he hung 
out with friends in the park, smoking pot and popping pills.

The drugs were a mild distraction, but did little for his mood. Then 
someone gave him the powerful prescription painkiller OxyContin. When 
crushed, the pills delivered a euphoric, heroin-like punch. "I don't know 
how to explain the buzz," says Coots, now 21. "It's just this utopic feeling.

You feel like you can conquer the world... It's a better high than anything 

Coots was hooked.

He started out with a modest 20mg, but before long, he says, he needed 
400mg just to make it through the day. And that took money. OxyContin is 
known as the poor man's heroin, but at a street price of $1 per milligram 
it can be anything but cheap.

Coots quit his job and spent all his time in pursuit of the precious pills.

Each morning began with an orange 40mg tablet, which he downed before 
getting out of bed. "I couldn't hardly walk if I didn't have it." At first 
he crushed and snorted the pills, after sucking on them to remove the 
time-release coating.

Later he dissolved the powder in water and injected it for a quicker buzz. 
He floated through the days in a dreamlike stupor, not even bothering to 
eat. His waist dropped from 42 inches to 36 inches in two months.

As his cravings got worse, he found creative ways to get hold of the pills. 
Sometimes he would fake back pain and get a shady local doctor to write him 
an Oxy prescription. Once, he even stole the pills from his grandfather, 
who was taking them to dull the pain from a fractured spine. "I had to have 
more and more," he says. These days, nearly everyone in Hazard has an 
OxyContin horror story to tell. In the last year, local officials say, the 
drug has swept through the small town, wrecking lives and destroying 
families. Precise statistics are hard to pin down, but the number of local 
addicts runs in the hundreds.

Oxy abuse cuts across income and age lines.

Teens meet for Oxy parties in the park. Miners blow their paychecks to feed 
their addictions. Even grandmothers peddle their prescriptions for quick 
cash. In February police rounded up more than 200 Oxy dealers in Hazard and 
surrounding counties, the largest drug bust in state history.

Hazard's crime rate has soared; the jail is packed with Oxy-addicted inmates.

In nearby Harlan, Judge Ron Johnson sentenced a woman to 10 years in prison 
for selling just four of the pills.

OxyContin is "a pure scourge upon the land," he fumed from the bench.

It is, he said, "demonic fire."

Hazard isn't the only place struggling to quell the flames.

Oxy has taken hold in other rural Appalachian states and in New England, 
places where it's tougher to get more familiar street drugs like heroin and 

The drug's maker, Purdue Pharma, says it is appalled by the widespread 
abuse of the drug, a form of synthetic morphine. "When this drug is used 
properly, it has the potential to save lives.

When it's abused, it has the potential to take lives, just like any other 
strong medication," says Dr. J. David Haddox, Purdue Pharma's medical director.

In an effort to stem the damage, Purdue has held workshops for doctors and 
met with the DEA and officials from five states. The company is even 
researching new drugs that would be more tamper-proof and less addictive.

But those efforts are years away from pharmacy shelves. Hazard isn't 
willing to wait. In recent months police and community activists have 
joined forces to get OxyContin off the streets, and out of their town.

That could prove difficult.

Hazard has a long tradition of self-medication. Moonshine and marijuana, 
grown in its fertile soil, have long helped to blot out depression, 
boredom, even physical pain. Eastern Kentucky has one of the nation's 
highest cancer rates, and many residents suffer from chronic mining and 
timber injuries.

OxyContin seemed like the most potent antidote yet to the local despair. 
"If there's ever been a drug made that will knock depression out for the 
short term, it's OxyContin," says therapist Mike Spare. "The euphoria sucks 
you in."

When the then police chief, Rod Maggard, first heard about Oxy in the 
summer of 1999, he had to ask his pharmacist what it was. But by spring, he 
knew all too well what the drug was doing to his town. Burglaries and 
domestic-violence reports were up. Overdoses were mounting at the local 
hospital. (State police count 19 OxyContin-related deaths in Kentucky this 
year alone.

Purdue Pharma disputes the number.) Maggard, 57, who retired as police 
chief in March, was flooded with hundreds of calls from families begging 
him to help get a son or daughter off the drug. "I have never seen anything 
take off like this did," says Maggard, a square-shouldered, gray-haired 
cop. "It has mushroomed." On the wood-paneled wall above him hangs a prized 
painting called "The Protector"-an image of Jesus with his hand on the hood 
of a flashing police cruiser.

Maggard was especially outraged that the town's sole refuge, leafy, 
peaceful Perry County Park, had become an open-air drug market.

Clusters of teens and young adults jammed the parking lot near the Little 
League fields, lining up to buy Oxy. "Nobody wanted to get stoned.

Nobody wanted to get drunk.

Everybody wanted to go get an OC and sit in the park," says Holly, a 
recovering addict who's now 21. Girls carried ceramic bathroom tiles in 
their purses so they could be ready to crush a pill anywhere, any time. In 
a futile effort to control the trade, Maggard patrolled the grounds in his 
unmarked car, installed surveillance cameras and had the park gates locked 
late at night.

Nothing seemed to work. When addicts started referring to the park as 
"Pillville," Maggard called in the Feds for help. The DEA and other 
law-enforcement agencies set up an undercover task force.

By then Hazard was in the throes of a crime wave sparked by Oxy addicts 
searching for a fix. James Wallace, a baby-faced 20-year-old, was locked in 
the dilapidated Perry County Jail for receiving stolen property.

Leaning on a blue plastic picnic table in the jail's smoky visitors' 
lounge, Wallace admits he stole televisions, guns, knives-all to earn money 
for Oxy. Sometimes he'd even go into stores and claim the soda machine 
outside had taken his dollar. "You'll do everything and anything," he says. 
In Hazard, whatever he got his hands on could be traded for the drug. 
Addicts even lifted grocery-store steaks.

At one Hazard fruit stand, you could swap food stamps for the pills.

Playing With Pain Killers

Throughout the fall, Maggard's undercover task force quietly plugged away. 
Police eventually seized 10,000 OxyContin pills and bought an additional 
3,500 in sting operations. As they worked, Maggard and his team traced the 
drug's route to Hazard. Most of the pills came through a disturbingly 
convenient pipeline: the local pharmacy.

Dealers would fake injuries or visit a few unscrupulous doctors willing to 
write prescriptions for a $100 fee. Several doctors have already been 
charged, and Joseph Famularo, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of 
Kentucky, hints his next round of indictments may target health-care 
workers explicitly. Though Kentucky has a computer system designed to track 
narcotics prescriptions, Hazard was close enough to five other states that 
"doctor shoppers" could easily cross borders. Many users paid cash for the 

Others were bold enough to get Medicaid or private insurance to pick up the 
tab. Police even found some elderly patients who rationed their own pain 
pills and sold the rest. "People were selling what they should be taking," 
says Maggard.

The task force got tips from an unlikely source: local churches.

Late last fall pastors found themselves conducting funeral services for a 
growing number of Oxy overdose victims.

One October evening the weekly Bible-study session at Petrey Memorial 
Baptist Church became a virtual OxyContin support group, as congregants 
spontaneously began sharing their stories about the drug. The Rev. Ronnie 
(Butch) Pennington launched a faith-based group, People Against Drugs. When 
he called a communitywide meeting on Oxy, so many people responded that he 
had to move the location twice to find a room large enough for the crowd. 
In the end, more than 400 people showed up. After the meeting participants 
called in 60 tips about possible Oxy dealers.

Police put them to use. As the sun rose on Feb. 6, more than 100 officers 
fanned out across eastern Kentucky with a sheaf of arrest warrants.

By evening, Operation Oxyfest 2001 had rounded up 207 dealers.

But a month later people wondered if the arrests had even made a dent. 
Frustrated, Kentucky prosecutor John Hansen has vowed to file murder 
charges against Oxy-overdose survivors, including family, friends and dealers.

With the whole town focused on catching the dealers, Hazard's addicts have 
largely been left to fend for themselves. The town still has no rehab 
program. Joshua Coots bottomed out about a year and a half ago. He'd lost 
his car, declared bankruptcy and wound up getting arrested for stealing the 
family truck.

One day he collapsed on his parents' kitchen floor. "Mom and Dad, I'm on 
Oxy and it's killing me," he sobbed.

At a religious revival meeting, a visiting pastor preached about evil in 
people's lives.

He seemed to be looking straight at Coots, who wept steadily, tears 
dripping off his mustache and down his chin. Was he ready to step into a 
new life? the preacher asked.

Coots was. He quit Oxy cold turkey. "It was miraculous," he says.

Today, Main Street in Hazard has one fewer boarded-up storefront. In the 
building that once housed a campaign office, Coots and his father, Pastor 
Donnie Coots, refer Oxy addicts to private rehab programs out of state.

In Pillville, police are still rounding up dealers and users on weekends.

The hundreds of busts have managed to decrease the supply, making the drug 
more expensive. Yet the Oxy market continues to thrive.

Too many people in Hazard, it seems, are willing to pay any price.
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