When the bubble burst: How the drug epidemic changed Huntington

Updated 1 year ago by David Williams, HNN Freelance Correspondent
When the bubble burst: How the drug epidemic changed Huntington

Huntington, WV was always considered the perfect place to raise a family.  A college town that was simple but safe.  We lived in a bubble.  We were safe in that bubble. The seventies and eighties were an innocent time in our city.  Most of us that were raised here remember a time when it was safe to leave your doors unlocked. 

     The drug epidemic changed America.  It has changed small towns and big cities alike across our great country.  Huntington was ground zero for the drug epidemic.  It crept in a little at a time.  Crack cocaine was creeping into Huntington in the nineties from Detroit, a metropolis hundreds of miles away.  It was a mostly black drug confined to the Fairfield District of Huntington.  Most people avoided that area and just proclaimed it 'the bad part of town."

     But as the opioid epidemic began to emerge in Appalachia from Eastern Kentucky in the late nineties... the drug problem slowly took on a white tone and began to slowly spread across Huntington.

     Huntington was jolted into reality when four teens were shot and killed on prom night May 23, 2005.  It was the first time that many in Huntington were willing to admit there was a drug problem in our town.  Four teens were brutally murdered  Dante Ward, 19, of Huntington; Edrick Clark, 18, of South Point, Ohio; Michael Dillon, 17, of Huntington; and Megan Poston, 16, of Barboursville.  This was Huntington's first national association with the drug problem.

When the bubble burst: How the drug epidemic changed Huntington


It was in this time period of the early 2000's and around the time of the murders in 2005 that jail officials at West Regional Jail in Huntington began to realize a direct connection between crime and Detroit.  As more and more Detroit residents began to be lodged at the facility, the guards started noticing tatoos.  Some of the Detroit criminals had a letter on each knuckle that spelled Munnington.The term than spiraled into Moneyton...which meant that Huntington symbolizied money for Detroit drug dealers. 

     OxyContin began to flood into Huntington from pill mills all over Southern Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky.  These pill mills exploded around 2008 and ran into around 2011 or 2012.  The pill mills around Ohio were very prominent in the Portsmouth, Ohio area.  Many patients were legitimately in pain and in need of medicine and treatment.  Others were addicted to painkillers but figured since they were being issued prescriptions that everything was ethical and legal.  As more and more people became addicted and some were overdosing and dying, the problem caught the attention of authorities.  Millions on painkillers were being shipped to small towns and people from all over were flocking to those towns for the painkillers.  

Wayne Hunt of Huntington remembers:  "I was going to a clinic in Portsmouth.  I would pay $200 for the office call and then I would get a script for about 130 Oxy 30's.  At first, there was a pharmacy in Columbus that was filling those.  A few of us would ride up there together.  Then, they got raided and wouldn't fill them.  It was a surprise to us because we thought it was legal because the script was written by a doctor.  It got harder and harder each month to get them filled.  We would get them filled one month and then go back to that pharmacy the next month and they would not fill them. We would driv e for hours.  We would end up in places like Lancaster, Ohio or Beckley, WV.  It became an all day job to get them filled."

     Eventually, the pill mills of Southern Ohio were shut down.  Drug dealers then turned their attention to Florida and Georgia.  Some of the local, 'neighborhood' dealers would sponsor trips to Florida.  They would get people to 'doctor shop' the clinic down south.  The dealer would pay for the trip as they would load up a carload or vanload of people and pay for the gas, food, doctor, hotel, and other expenses.  In return the person visiting the doctor would get free pills.  The dealer would sell the rest and make money.  It appeared to be a win-win situation.  While the pipeline was running from West Virginia to Florida, drug dealers from Detroit were getting pills from the Detroit area where they were cheaper due to less demand and selling them for more money in Huntington and other Appalachian areas.  Some of the pills were bought in Canada where they were cheaper and smuggled across the border.  Sometimes, to make even more money...the Detroit dealers would buy guns in West Virginia where they were cheaper and easier to purchase and sell in Detroit where they sold for more money.

     After, the prescription drugs were harder to get as the Oxycontin pipeline got shut down, the demand for opioids was still very high.  This opened the door for Detroit drug dealers to fill the demand by supplying heroin for those withdrawing from withdraws.  Suddenly, there were soccer moms who had injuries from car wrecks who became dependent on painkillers who were cut off and began buying heroin from street dealers to treat their pain.  This created two major problems.  One was that heroin from each dealer was different.  No one knew exactly how much to take.  This caused overdoses because one shot from one dealer was different than a shot from another dealer.  Also, some dealers began to spike their product.  No one knew exactly what was in the heroin.  Fentanyl began to appear in the dope and the dope got deadlier and deadlier.

When the bubble burst: How the drug epidemic changed Huntington


     More and more people began to overdose.  The dirty little secret that Huntington had kept for years could no longer be silenced.  Around 2013, the epidemic began to be public knowledge.  All major networks, HBO, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, and others began to flock to Huntington, WV - the new "Heroin Capital" (as first titled by HBO's Vice documentary show,  Huntington was now officially ground zero of the new drug epidemic.


                                                                                              INNOCENCE LOST 

     When the bubble finally burst, innocence was the first thing lost.  Huntington residents were horrified by ambulances at McDonald's for overdoses in the bathroom or to see EMS crews at work on Walgreens' parking lot trying to bring someone back to life.  Suddenly, there were ambulances everywhere.  911 Facebook pages became popular as residents were shocked of the sheer numbers of overdoses that had seemingly engulfed their innocent little town overnight.  Pictures of users passed out on benches and falling around on city streets began to be circulated throughout the internet and awareness of the problem began to be evident.

     So, for many, perhaps the biggest change for Huntington due to the epidemic was the loss of innocence.  Huntington not only began to see an influx of overdoses and deaths that led to its' crowning as Heroin Capital but drug-related murders were on the rise as well.  Huntington was no longer the little innocent town where it was safe to walk down the street whenever a person wanted too.  Huntington news and newspaper was now talking about shootings and murders....once foreign topics to local news viewers.  The murders were no longer taking place in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, or St. Louis...but in our own backyard as well.

     Out of fear...perhaps mostly unfounded fear.... people began to change their routines.  Some quit going out at night or quit shopping Downtown.  Innocence was forever gone.  We now had safety to worry about.




     As the drug epidemic impacted the area, social attitudes changed.  Addiction was considered and treated as a disease.  As the social  attitudes softened, so did the way crimes were looked at.  Property crimes have been on a steady increase since the start of the epidemic.  Many of the crimes are being committed by repeat offenders.  Many of the offenders are receiving treatment in rehabs or stays in sober living houses instead of in jail.  While this is helping save lives it also led to some habitual criminals taking advantage of the system.



                                                                                         THE EFFECT ON CHILDREN


     The foster care system of West Virginia has been deeply impacted by the drug epidemic.  There are not nearly enough foster parents to help the children in need.  It has been estimated that 84% of the children in West Virginia foster care are there because they have at least one parent addicted to drugs.

     West Virginia has the fourth highest rate in the nation for grandparents raising grandchildren -- an arrangement often referred to as “grandfamilies”.  A reader sent this to me - "As a teacher for twenty years, I have seen an increase of students being raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles or older siblings. Not to mention the trauma they carry on their shoulders from seeing their parents on drugs, going to jail or unfortunately dead."

     West Virginia is amongst the leaders in babies being born addicted.  Although the newest numbers are from 2013, when the drug epidemic was just rising, the numbers are still astounding.  

     According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia had the nation’s highest rate of babies born dependent on drugs at 33.4 per 1,000 births in 2013, compared with the national average of 5.8. 

      The rates in some counties were staggering. Lincoln County had the highest rate at 106.6 per 1,000 births last year, followed by Marshall County at 102.1. 

     Cabell County was not too far behind with 62.3 per 1,000. Wayne County had a rate of 55.3 per 1,000;


     The drug epidemic has had a definite impact on children in West Virginia.



                                                                                    "EVERYONE HAS LOST SOMEONE"

       Many lives have been lost.  No one has been unaffected by death due to the drug epidemic.  As Danny Beach stated, "Everybody has lost someone.  I have lost childhood friends, relatives, and co-workers."  

       Many bright individuals with bright futures have seen their lives snuffed out by the drug epidemic. In 2017,  West Virginia had a rate of 57 deaths per 100,000, due to overdoses. With overdose deaths increasing, funeral home directors are dealing with the epidemic unlike anyone else, finding themselves in the middle of the crisis. With such an increase, the state has had trouble keeping up with the deaths.

     As I write this, I have learned a patient we had just last week at the mental health hospital I work at had a relapse and overdosed and died last night.  I also received this from a Facebook friend today.  "----  fought a life of drugs off and on. But the Meth won this time.  He died on a vent, both lung and brain infection, his kidneys failed.   He had a lot of people who loved him. I write to you to ask for you not to forget the fight you do on drugs. I know he read your posts.  We talked about them. Just letting you know Drugs in Huntington took another Father, ,brother, cousin, ,best friend and friends to many others out there who knew him. Thanks for taking the time to read this, I. wanted you to know u lost a fan of yours to drugs.


                                                                                       HOMELESS IN HUNTINGTON 


     The number of homeless people living in shelters or on the streets in Cabell and Wayne counties decreased for the third straight year in 2019.  A count showed 171 people in the two counties as compared to 190 in 2018 and 205 in 2017.  Many people disagree with the numbers because there appears to be more homeless than ever in Downtown Huntington.  The increase of the homeless appears to be due to 1) drug users who have lost everything to drugs 20 drug users who actually left home in order to do drugs and choose to live on the streets 3) drug users who left other cities and came to Huntington for free needles and a city with a compassionate giving nature and availability of drugs 4) came from other cities to enter a drug rehab or sober living house and dropped out and have remained in Huntington living on the streets.  What we have in Huntington is an addiction problem disguised as a housing problem.  We have agencies like The Huntington City Watch and Harmony House that is helping the  homeless find homes.  Many of the addicted are set on spending their money on drugs and either living on the street or in abandoned houses.  When the cold weather comes, many go back to other cities where their families are.





West Virginia health officials say the number of HIV cases in Cabell County has risen to 53.  The Herald-Dispatch reports the total increased by four cases in the past four weeks and nine cases in the past nine weeks. The cluster has spread primarily among intravenous drug users.  HIV and Hepatitis C have both been on the rise in Huntington since the start of the epidemic.  The Cabell County Health Department has tried to combat the spreading with its' controversial free needle exchange program




                                                                                             SOME POSITIVE ASPECTS

                                                                                             PEOPLE PULLING TOGETHER

      There has been some positive coming out of the drug epidemic as our city rallies together to recover.  Rob Doubleyou has seen some of the good.  Doubleyou is a recovering drug addict who is now helping spread recovery.  He now leads It's A Good Thing.  A Good Thing is a company with three recovery houses in Huntington.  He is giving recovering addicts a chance at sober living.  He also spreads the word through motivational speaking.  Doubleyou said, "Huntington West Virginia has become a place where helping and loving people is now cool. Seeing people in their 20's and 30's being more concerned with the well being of other is a thing of beauty."

     Aaron Given agrees, "The good change I can see is that the city had been decaying for years and many individuals are taking action to help change things.  Given adds, "The city leadership in Huntington acts as if it is in a bubble and as if the rest of the area does not exist.  We have to fight the drug problem with action and fight the negativity that is so prevalent with positivity."

     Here are some of the places in our area offering help with addiction

PROACT  - 304-696-8700

Prestera - 877-399-7776

River Park Hospital - 800-526-9111

Recovery Point 304- 523-4673

Her Place -304-525-7394

First Steps Wellness and Recovery Center  681-378-3791

It's A Good Thing -recovery house - 304-593-6900

The Life House - recovery house - 304-429-5433

Newness of Life - recovery house  304-972-6601

The Ark Inc.  Recovery House 681-945-7273

Huntington Comprehensive Treatment Center 304- 932-0106


                                                                                         ABANDONED HOUSES COMING DOWN


     Another positive aspect has been all of the attention cast on to the abandoned house problem has evolved into many of the building's being torn down.  The epidemic created a lot of homeless addicts who moved onto abandoned houses.  The problems created by this had led to the solution of knocking down the abandoned structures.  The action of demolishing dilapidated structures has resulted in a fresher look for Huntington.



     The drug epidemic has brought death and destruction to our area.  While lives have been lost and shattered, many people are trying to crawl out from under the rubble and put Huntington back together.  It is a problem being faced by most cities and towns across our country, but Huntington, once labelled 'The Heroin Capital' is leading the way to recovery.  Only time will tell if Huntington can prevail in the battle.

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