Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 11, 2012

Drug abuse crisis: McDowell County will overcome this latest adversity

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— If we are to believe what we are being told, the drug problem in McDowell County has reached a crisis level.

That is surprising. Growing up in McDowell County, we had our share of problems. There were plenty of fights in school, the occasionally bully would cause trouble in the hallway or on the school bus and students on more than a few occasions would act up in the classroom. But in all honesty, we were a pretty good bunch of kids back in the day. A big Friday night for us was going to the bowling alley in Welch or, if we were lucky, a good meal at the Sterling Drive Inn. Drugs were never really an issue in our schools, or the community as a whole.

But that was then. This is now.

Today, the county is reporting alarming statistics, particularly ones relating to overdose deaths from prescription drugs. And it’s not just a McDowell County problem. It’s a southern West Virginia problem and a Southwest Virginia problem. McDowell County has just been getting a lot of attention as of late —— thanks in part to that horrific Australian television news report and now the article in Playboy magazine that has a lot of folks talking.

Two drug treatment facilities are now being planned for the county. The first — a 12-bed unit for women that will include educational and job counseling — could be under construction as early as this spring or summer. County officials also predict that the proposed Suboxone clinic — a facility that could serve as many as 30 men and women at one time — could be operational by June if all goes as planned.

War Mayor Tom Hatcher, who has been keeping track of overdose deaths in the Big Creek District of the county during the past five years, shared some alarming statistics with me last week. While there are about 6,000 people living in the Big Creek District, the area has recorded more than 100 overdose deaths during the past five years. Hatcher is concerned about the drug problem in his community — and rightfully so. But the problem has extended far beyond the historic home of the Rocket Boys. It is now a county-wide crisis.

Many of us have trouble with the concept of a drug treatment facility. After all, we are talking about treating a drug addiction with another prescription drug. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to some of us. And there are many who will argue that they do not want a drug treatment facility in their neighborhood. Others — as we have seen on our Facebook postings — will argue that the best drug treatment facility an addict can find is a church. And that’s an excellent point.

But the problem is serious enough at the moment that county officials are adamant about the need for a drug treatment facility. And many citizens in the county are apparently supportive of these proposed developments. If there are those who are opposed, no one has contacted this newspaper yet to say so. If these drug treatment facilities can help, it is hard to argue against them. The problem, after all, has reached a crisis level in McDowell County — just as it did several years ago in neighboring Tazewell County.

The apparent surge in the county’s drug problem is also surprising given recent economic development successes in McDowell County. The new federal prison, for example, has created hundreds of jobs. There is a theater in downtown Welch, a WalMart supercenter in Kimball and a host of new restaurants in the Welch area. The economy is still bad, but there are jobs to be found.

The situation was much different when I was growing up in McDowell County. We didn’t have a WalMart. We didn’t have a Subway. We didn’t have a theater (although technically we did with the old Starland Drive-Inn Theater before it was closed). And we certainly didn’t have a McDonalds. Finding a job, or even summer work, often meant traveling to neighboring Mercer County.

If the economy is growing, and some jobs are to be found, why is the county’s drug problem also on the upswing? That’s a good question. Times are still tough. But turning to drugs is never the answer. McDowell County can and will overcome this latest crisis. We overcame the horrific floods of 2001 and 2002. We rebuilt our towns, our libraries, our schools and our city halls. When the street lights were dimmed in historic Gary, and the preparation plant — a once giant symbol of the county’s coal mining legacy — was demolished, we overcame the adversity.

Those of us who grew up in McDowell County, and are still proud enough to call McDowell County home, are a special group of people. McDowell County will once again overcome this latest challenge. It has to.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at