Follow the Pills: How Drug Companies Sent 780 Million Painkillers Into West Virginia Over a Six-Year Span

By Zachary Siegel 12/20/16

During this timeframe, 1,728 West Virginians overdosed on the powerful opioids flooding into their home state.

round white pills falling down

A stunning investigation by the Sunday Gazette-Mail uncovered how over a span of six years, drug distribution companies shipped 780 million painkillers to West Virginia, a state devastated by opioid overdose. 

The investigation found that the amount of narcotic pain pills that wound up in West Virginia was enough to provide 433 pills to every man, woman and child in the state. 

“These numbers will shake even the most cynical observer,” Don Perdue, a retired pharmacist, told The Mail. “Distributors have fed their greed on human frailties and to criminal effect. There is no excuse and should be no forgiveness.” 

Indeed, the numbers are startling. For example, in Kermit, West Virginia, a small coal-mining town with a population of 392, drug distribution companies shipped nearly nine million opioid pain relievers to a single pharmacy in just two years. 

During the six-year window, while millions of powerful of opioids containing oxycodone and hydrocodone poured into the state, 1,728 West Virginians overdosed on those same drugs, the Sunday Gazette-Mail found. 

The Gazette-Mail discovered these grim figures by obtaining previously confidential records of drug shipping sales from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's West Virginia operation. The documents tracked the number of pills sold to every pharmacy in the state, along with the corresponding shipments from drug companies to every county in West Virginia between 2007 and 2012. 

The distribution companies fought tooth and nail to keep the records of sales sealed. But the Gazette-Mail was unrelenting in its battle for the documents. The paper eventually won them in court. 

Whether or not the distribution companies will be held accountable for their actions remains to be seen. But, the Gazette-Mail’s reporting has already affected the opioid crisis in West Virginia. 

In 2006, the Gazette-Mail’s series called “The Killer Cure" wrongly attributed the deaths of chronic pain patients on methadone to people recovering from opioid use disorder. This mistake, pointed out by reporters in the June 26, 2006 issue of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, helped make the case for a moratorium on methadone clinics in West Virginia.

In a state with the highest overdose mortality rates in the country, public health experts are baffled that West Virginia has not opened any new methadone clinics. On top of that, Medicaid does not cover methadone treatment in the state—a proven way to reduce mortality and a host of other ills caused by addiction. 

The Gazette-Mail never retracted its series or corrected its error. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.