Opiates, coal, and poverty in America’s poorest white town


Beattyville, Kentucky has mostly been destroyed by opiates and low-priced coal being mined elsewhere, as well as (inadvertently) by welfare benefits. Locals may blame Obama and EPA for the death of their coal mining but the truth is, coal can be mined cheaper elsewhere. Mostly though, Oxycontin has devastated the area. Crooked pharmacies and doctors peddle the pills. Drug companies make huge profits. An underground economy has evolved to use food stamps for drugs.

Residents are aware of their poverty and of the sneering disdain that many, especially mainstream Democrats, have for them.

Quoting from an insightful Guardian article about Beattyville.

This is routinely, and sometimes sneeringly, characterised by Democrats in other parts of America as poor white people voting against their own interests. It’s a view that exasperates Davis.

“They say, why aren’t these people voting their self-interest? People always vote their self-interest if they can see it. If they believe the government doesn’t work, if they believe that the Democrats don’t really give a shit about people like them, don’t want to be in the same room with them, they want their vote but don’t want to hang out with them, then as they see it they’re voting their self-interest,” he said.

Well, they’re just dumb hillbillies living in the country so who cares if they get addicted, right?

There is little sympathy for doctors or pharmacists acting as dealers, but there is a view in Beattyville and surrounding towns that people have been exploited by something bigger than a few medics, largely because they are regarded as “backward”.

Davis said the drug companies aggressively pushed OxyContin and similar drugs in a region where, because of a mixture of the mining, the rigours of the outdoors and the weather, there was a higher demand for painkillers.

“You couldn’t go to a doctor without seeing a merchant there. Here’s this synthetic opium product that’s supposed to be good for palliative care – cancer patients – and they start selling it as regular pain medicine. They knew how highly addictive it was and they sold it anyway,” he said. “I live in a town of 1,500 people with seven pharmacies as well as pain clinics and methadone clinics and the full backup industry. Everybody gets paid, doctors and pharmacists and lawyers.”

The mortality rate is rising for less-educated, middle-aged people, and opiates are a primary cause.

Recently released research shows that abuse of powerful opioid painkillers is in part responsible for a sharp rise in the death rate among white middle-aged Americans over the past two decades, particularly less-educated 45- to 54-year-olds. The report by academics at Princeton university also blamed misuse of alcohol and a rise in cheaper high quality heroin along with suicides. The researchers said they suspected that financial stress played a part in people taking their lives.

Unintended consequences of welfare: Food stamps indirectly pay for drugs. Inquiring minds want to know why pop simply is excluded from what can be bought with food stamps.

Ask where people get the money for drugs and just about everyone blames it on welfare in general and the trade in what is known locally as “pop” – soft drinks – in particular.

They are paid by electronic transfer on the first of the month. That same day, cases of Pepsi and Coca-Cola are marked down sharply in supermarkets and disappear off the shelves, often paid for with food stamps.

They are then sold on to smaller stores at a lower price than they would pay a distributor, in effect turning several hundred dollars of food stamps into cash at about 50 cents on the dollar.

The “pop” scam has become shorthand in Beattyville among those who regard welfare as almost as big a blight as the drugs themselves.

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