Heroin addiction comes to West Virginia

As a boy and well into adulthood, I thought of heroin addiction as a product and problem of big city slums—a world completely alien to me.

My old friend Steve called my attention to a harrowing article in The New Yorker about heroin addiction in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, just across the river from western Maryland where the two of us grew up.

The Eastern Panhandle as I remember it

I am shocked, although I know I shouldn’t be, that heroin addiction could capture so many people with the same small-town white Protestant background as me.  But in fact rates of drug addiction are higher among non-Hispanic white people than among Hispanic or black people.

Like much of Appalachia, as well as the Rustbelt along the Great Lakes, the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., lost its main manufacturing employer, the Interwoven textile mill, and nothing has ever taken its place.

Citizens of Martinsburg today are thinking of converting part of the old Interwoven plant into a drug rehabilitation center.

Margaret Talbot, the author of the New Yorker article, gives harrowing descriptions of how drug addition has become normalized.  She opens with a description of a mother and father suffering a drug overdose while attending a Little League game.

She reported on how marketing of painkillers such as Oxycontin enabled West Virginians to self-medicate for physical and psychic pain, and then how heroin was introduced as a cheaper substitute.  She went on to write:

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin.

Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose.

I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs.

“In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.”

There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.”

He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

Source: The New Yorker

As I see it, large numbers of Americans think that what gives meaning to life is economic success, or at least being able to pay your way and be a breadwinner for others.  When that meaning is no longer available, they feel worthless and fall into despair.

Click to enlarge

It’s interesting that drug addiction is not rising as much among Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks.  As a group, they’re worse off than non-Hispanic whites, but my guess is that they can look back and see things getting better.  And since they’re not burdened by “white privilege,” they’re less likely to see poverty or unemployment as proof of personal inadequacy.

Alice Case and Angus Deaton recently published an update to their 2015 study of the increasing death rate among white Americans, which they attributed to “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug poisoning and alcohol-related liver disease.

In European and American history, going back to early Christians in ancient Rome, the cure for despair has been religious revival.

I’m thinking in particular of how Methodism in 18th century England and the Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th century United States transformed the lives of the downtrodden and the outcast.

The problem for me is that a religion strong enough to transform lives might not be compatible with the tolerant secular liberal society in which I feel so much at home.


The Addicts Next Door by Margaret Talbot for The New Yorker.  Excellent!

Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University (2017).   Scroll down to the end to see charts that tell the story.

The Cause of the Opiate Epidemic by Ian Welsh.

Tragedy of the American Dreamland by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Our nation’s drug overdose problem, in five bleak charts, by Nick Wells and Meg Tirrell for CNBC.

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4 Responses to “Heroin addiction comes to West Virginia”

  1. j9t Says:

    (I’ve only recently started following you as it seems you’re writing about many philosophical subjects as well. I can’t tell yet what role philosophy plays for you—still learning more with each post—but this as a note to explain the heavy philosophical slant in the following.)

    For me what you’re describing here quite exemplifies how philosophy fails people, and where it could be of most use. Cf., https://meiert.com/en/blog/20161031/why-philosophy-matters/. I wish to elaborate on this a little.

    In my mind the prevailing world views are not only inaccurate, they (especially what one commonly calls science) are often downright hostile, effectively, when it comes to life and humanness—it is absolutely no wonder that people “protest” against them.

    As philosophers we may benefit from liberating ourselves from all the assumptions that we permitted the scientific method to impose on us (it is imperative that we are aware of every assumption we make, including physicalism and logic; and yes, looking at our reality system is then all going to get metaphysical and difficult for us very quickly), and not shy away from acknowledging some of these difficulties (that there’s not only the physical, that some things we may never be able to “know”—something so crucial and yet so impossible for some to admit it seems—, that there’s power to the mind, &c. pp., and I believe we may eventually be able to move from “this is difficult” to “this is magical,” and at least undo some of the harm secularization has done).

    There has never been a more interesting nor more important time for Philosophy. How much of immediate help this brings to the people in West Virgina, right now, may be debatable. But there are models, world views, with which people would not feel without meaning and power.


    • philebersole Says:

      I think that everyone needs a personal philosophy—whether based on the formal study of philosophy or not—in order to be able to see clearly in the face of propaganda and peer pressure..

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Edward Says:

    “drug addiction is not rising as much among Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks.”

    This is probably because law enforcement is after them. Justice has not been blind when it comes to the drug war, especially for blacks. I question how serious the politicians have been about dealing with drug addiction, as opposed to using this issue during elections. Nixon intended the “drug war” as a tool to persecute some group I forget, probably the left. The CIA has used the drug trade for a long time to secure funding without Congressional oversight. That heroin probably came from Afghanistan.


  3. boozeandbarbells Says:

    great post, just wrote a similar post on our state.



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