Undone by Oxycontin, A Small Town Goes To War

By Walter Armstrong 08/04/11

Portsmouth, Ohio is on the front-line of America's epic struggle with oxycodone. But its citizens are taking desperate measures to turn back a rising tide of painkillers and pill mills.

One of the buildings in which the police are temporarily housed Photo via

Scioto County in Southern Ohio has been ravaged by the scourge of prescription painkiller addiction. Nearly one in ten births here last year were “Oxy babies,” born hooked on the narcotic. Admissions to local ERs are five times the national average. Meantime, illegal pill mills spring up and close down before police can react.

The law fights these counterfeit doctors with minimal funding—with county coffers wiped out by the high costs of the Oxy plague and federal and state cutbacks on essential public services. Portsmouth, for example, a pill-mill center, now lacks even a police headquarters—the former facility was shut down because of black mold and asbestos exposure, leaving the town’s 40 cops scattered in buildings across town or simply working out of their cars.

The fiscal emergency hit just as the community was beginning to mobilize against the painkiller epidemic. A countywide organization, SOLACE (Surviving Our Loss and Continuing Everyday), helps police monitor pill-pushing activities on the street and from storefront clinics. Lisa Roberts, the nurse who spearheads SOLACE, filed an application with the TV show Extreme Makeover, asking for a segment on Portsmouth’s plight. “The Rx drug problem has spiraled Portsmouth into financial ruin [with] over $1,000,000 in unavoidable debt. Our current rate of death, disease, crime and social collapse is frightening without a functional police department building. Our future is bleak,” Roberts wrote.

But Marianne Skolek, an Oregon newspaper columnist and anti-Oxy activist, is promoting a separate initiative, calling on Purdue Pharma—the $10 billion drug company that sells OxyContin and many other addictive painkillers—to cough up the funds for a new police HQ. Purdue has had to pay close to $1 billion in plea agreements in lawsuits that arose because the company lied for years in its promotion of OxyContin, falsely underplaying the drug's abuse and addiction potential. “Purdue unleashed a highly abusable, addictive, and potentially dangerous drug on an unsuspecting and unknowing public,” a US attorney told USA Today, after winning an unprecedented victory in 2007 that held three Purdue executives personally liable.

Purdue is unlikely to meet the police-HQ request—and hadn't responded to questions from The Fix at press time. But today it announced its own patient-outreach program: Partners Against Pain. It includes a contest inviting patients to submit a photograph with brief text, “as a way to tell their story [of pain management] so that others can learn from their journey,” according to Purdue’s Pamela Bennett. To protest the Partners Against Pain program, which she says “is an insult [because it] puts the focus on something as bogus as the ‘undertreatment of pain’ [at the expense] of the true victims”—those who died due to Oxy addiction—Marianne Skolek is proposing that anyone who has lost a friend or family member to the painkiller “flood” the Partners Against Pain website and Pamela Bennett’s email with photos of their dead loved ones. The video below was made by Portsmouth's police chief, Charles Horner, in tribute to the town's Oxy dead.


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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.