Little, Brown

Excerpt: 'DOPESICK' by Beth Macy


In "DOPESICK: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America" (out now from Little, Brown), author Beth Macy painstakingly charts the twenty-plus year history of opioid addiction in America, from the tiny towns of Central Appalachia to the tony suburbs of our busiest cities. A New York Times bestseller in last year's hardcover release, this week's new paperback edition adds new material to Macy's riveting narrative, which tracks the families affected by addiction and the first responders who saw this crisis on the horizon, and attempted to sound the alarm.

We're pleased to present an excerpt from this vital, important work.


Though the opioid epidemic would go on to spare no segment of America, nowhere has it settled in and extracted as steep a toll as in the depressed former mill and mining communities of central Appalachia, where the desperate and jobless rip copper wire out of abandoned factories to resell on the black market and jimmy large- screen TVs through a Walmart garden-center fence crack to keep from “fiending for dope.”

In a region where few businesses dare to set up shop because it’s hard to find workers who can pass a drug test, young parents can die of heroin overdose one day, leaving their untended baby to succumb to dehydration and starvation three days later.

Appalachia was among the first places where the malaise of opioid pills hit the nation in the mid-1990s, ensnaring coal miners, loggers, furniture makers, and their kids. Two decades after the epidemic erupted, Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton were the first economists to sound the alarm. Their bombshell analysis in December 2015 showed that mortality rates among white Americans had quietly risen a half-percent annually between the years 1999 and 2013 while midlife mortality continued to fall in other affluent countries. “Half a million people are dead who should not be dead,” Deaton told the Washington Post, blaming the surge on suicides, alcohol-related liver disease, and drug poisonings — predominantly opioids — which the economists later referred to as “diseases of despair.” While the data from which Case and Deaton draw is not restricted to deaths by drug overdose, their central finding of “a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women” demonstrates that the opioid epidemic rests inside a host of other diseases of despair statistically significant enough to reverse “decades of progress in mortality.”

At roughly the same time the Case and Deaton study was published, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that 56 percent of Americans now knew someone who abused, was addicted to, or died from an overdose of opioids. Nationwide, the difference in life expectancy be- tween the poorest fifth of Americans by income and the richest fifth widened from 1980 to 2010 by thirteen years. For a long time, it was assumed that the core driver of this differential was access to health care and other protective benefits of relative wealth. But in Appalachia, those disparities are even starker, with overdose mortality rates 65 percent higher than in the rest of the nation. Clearly, the problem wasn’t just of some people dying sooner; it was of white Americans dying in their prime.

The story of how the opioid epidemic came to change this country begins in the mid to late 1990s, in Virginia’s westernmost point, in the pie-shaped county sandwiched between Tennessee and Kentucky, a place closer to eight other state capitals than its own, in Richmond. Head north as the crow flies from the county seat of Jonesville and you’ll end up west of Detroit.

Geopolitically, Lee County was the ultimate flyover region, hard to access by car, full of curvy, two-lane roads, and dotted with rusted-out coal tipples. It was the precise point in America where politicians were least likely to hold campaign rallies or pretend to give a shit — until the unchecked epidemic finally landed on their couches, too.

Four hundred miles away, at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, a stressed-out preschool teacher would tell Kristi Fernandez around this time that her four-year-old son, Jesse, was too rambunctious for his own good. He was causing mayhem in the classroom, so Kristi took him to his pediatrician, who urged her to put him on Ritalin. She acquiesced two years later, the drug seemed to quell his jitters and anxiety, and the teacher complaints stopped.

But he was still her high-energy Jesse. You could tell he was hyper even by the way he signed his name, blocking the letters out joyfully and haphazardly, adding a stick-figure drawing of the sun with a smiley face below the first E. The sun’s rays stuck out helter-skelter, like a country boy’s cowlick, as if it were running and winking at you all at once.


Lieutenant Richard Stallard was making his usual rounds, patrolling through Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap in Wise County near the Lee County line. This was the same iconic small town romanticized in Adriana Trigiani’s novel and film Big Stone Gap, the one based on her idyllic upbringing in the 1970s, when a self-described town spinster with the good looks of Ashley Judd could spend her days wandering western Virginia’s hills and hollows, delivering prescriptions for her family-run pharmacy without a thought of danger.

The year was 1997, a pivotal moment in the history of opioid addiction, and Stallard was about to sound the first muffled alarm. Across central Appalachia’s coal country, people hadn’t yet begun locking their toolsheds and barn doors as a guard against those addicted to Oxy- Contin, looking for anything to steal to fund their next fix.

The region was still referred to as the coalfields, even though coal-mining jobs had long been in steep decline. It had been three decades since President Lyndon Johnson squatted on the porch of a ramshackle house just a few counties west, having a chat with an unemployed sawmiller that led him to launch his War on Poverty, which resulted in bedrock social programs like food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and Head Start. But poverty remained very much with the coalfields the day Stallard had his first brush with a new and powerful painkiller. Whereas half the region lived in poverty in 1964 and hunger abounded, it now held national records for obesity, disability rates, and drug diversion, the practice of using and/or selling prescriptions for nonmedical purposes.If fat was the new skinny, pills were becoming the new coal.

Stallard was sitting in his patrol car in the middle of the day when a familiar face appeared. An informant he’d been working with for years had some fresh intel. At the time, the area’s most commonly diverted opioids were Lortab and Percocet, both of which sold on the streets for$10 a pill. Up until now, the most expensive painkiller of the bunch had been Dilaudid, the brand name for hydromorphone, a morphine derivative that sold on the black market for $40.The informant leaned into Stallard’s cruiser. “This feller up here’s got this new stuff he’s selling. It’s called Oxy, and he says it’s great,” he said.

“What is it again?” Stallard asked.

“It’s Oxy-compton. . . something like that.”

Pill users were already misusing it to intensify their high, the informant explained, as well as selling it on the black market. Oxy came in much higher dosages than standard painkillers, and an80-milligram tablet sold for $80, making its potential for black-market sales much higher than that of Dilaudid and Lortab. The increased potency made the drug a cash cow for the company that manufactured it, too.

The informant had more specifics: Users had already figured out an end run around the pill’s time-release mechanism, a coating stamped with oc and the milligram dosage. They simply popped a tablet in their mouths for a minute or two, until the rubberized coating melted away, then rubbed it off on their shirts. Forty-milligram Oxys left an orange sheen on their shirtsleeves, the 80-milligrams a tinge of green. The remaining tiny pearl of pure oxycodone could be crushed, then snorted or mixed with water and injected.

The euphoria was immediate and intense, with a purity similar to that of heroin. Stallard wondered what was coming next. In the early nineties, Colombian cartels had increased the potency of the heroin they were selling in urban markets to increase their market share — the goal being to attract needle-phobic users who preferred snorting over injecting. But as tolerance to the stronger heroin increased, the snorters overcame their aversion to needles and soon became IV heroin users.

As soon as Stallard got back to the station, he picked up the phone. The town pharmacist on the other line was incredulous: “Man, we only just got it a month or two ago. And you’re telling me it’s already on the street?”

The pharmacist had read the FDA-approved package insert for OxyContin. Most pain pills lasted only four hours, but OxyContin was supposed to provide steady relief three times as long, giving people in serious pain the miracle of uninterrupted sleep. In an early concession to the potential for its abuse, the makers of OxyContin claimed the slow-release delivery mechanism would frustrate drug abusers chasing a euphoric rush.

Based on Stallard’s news, the pharmacist already doubted the company’s claims: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.” If the town’s most experienced drug detective was calling him about it just a couple of months after the drug’s release, and if his neighbors were already walking around with their shirts stained orange and green, it was definitely being abused.

Excerpted from the book "DOPESICK" by Beth Macy. Copyright © 2019 by Beth Macy. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.