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.”
Three months before visiting Jones, in the spring of 2016, Kristi Fernandez and I stood next to Jesse’s grave on a rolling hillside in Strasburg, Virginia, in the shadow of Signal Knob. She’d asked me to meet her at one of her regular cemetery stops, on her way home from work, so I could see how she’d positioned his marker, just so, at the edge of the graveyard.
It was possible to stand at Jesse’s headstone—emblazoned with the foot-high number 55, in the same font as the lettering on his Strasburg Rams varsity jersey—and look down on the stadium where he had once summoned the crowd to its feet simply by running onto the field and pumping his arms
In the United States of Amnesia, as Gore Vidal once called it, there were people in history who might have expressed skepticism over Haddox’s claim, had anyone bothered reading up on them. Ever since the Neolithic humans figured out that the juice nestled inside the head of a poppy could be dried, dehydrated, and smoked for the purposes of getting high or getting well, depending on your point of view, opium had inspired all manner of commerce and conflict.
By the 1870s, injecting morphine was so popular among the upper classes in Europe and the United States that doctors used it for a variety of ailments, from menstrual pain to inflammation of the eyes. The almost total lack of regulatory oversight created a kind of Wild West for patent medicines, with morphine and opium pills available at the nearest drugstore counter, no prescription necessary. As long as a doctor initially OK’d the practice, even injected morphine was utterly accepted. Daily users were not socially stigmatized, because reliance on the drug was iatrogenic.
But what exactly was adequate pain relief? That point was unaddressed. Nor could anyone define it. No one questioned whether the notion of pain, invisible to the human eye, could actually be measured simply by asking the patient for his or her subjective opinion. Quantifying pain made it easy to standardize procedures, but experts would later concede that it was objective only in appearance—transition labor and a stubbed toe could both measure as a ten, depending on a person’s tolerance. And not only did reliance on pain scales not correlate with improved patient outcomes, it also had the effect of increasing opioid prescribing and opioid abuse.
Industrywide, pharmaceutical companies spent $4.04 billion in direct marketing to doctors in 2000, up 64 percent from 1996. To get in the doctor’s door, to get past the receptionist and head nurse, the reps came bearing gifts, from Valentine’s Day flowers to coupons for mani-pedis.
The average sales rep’s most basic tool was Dine ’n’ Dash, a play on the juvenile-delinquent prank of leaving a restaurant without paying the bill. For a chance to pitch their wonder drug, reps had long offered free dinners at fancy restaurants. But soon, to-go options abounded, too, for a busy doctor’s convenience. Reps began coming by before holidays to drop off a turkey or beef tenderloin that a doctor could take home to the family—even a Christmas tree. Driving home from the office, doctors were also invited to stop by the nearest gas station to get their tanks topped off—while listening to a drug rep’s pitch at the pump, a variation the reps nicknamed Gas’n’ Go. In the spring, the takeout menu featured flowers and shrubs, in a version some dubbed—you guessed it—Shrubbery ’n’ Dash.
The doctors were witnessing the same thing that Lieutenant Stallard had seen a year earlier, in 1997, on the streets. “We had always had people using Lortabs and Percocets, but they were five- or ten-milligram pills you could take every day and still function. They didn’t have to have more,” Stallard said.
“The difference with OxyContin was it turned them into nonfunctioning people”
Though it took nearly a decade before police, the press, and drug-abuse experts fully understood what was happening, Ed Bisch watched the urbanization of the pill epidemic play out on his front lawn in 2001, as paramedics carried his son’s body away.
He retreated to his computer, where he was shocked to learn that his son’s death had been the region’s thirtieth opioid overdose in the past three months.
How was that possible when he’d only just learned the word? “The internet was still new, and back then it was mostly message boards as opposed to websites,” he said.
In the fall of 2006, Purdue’s lawyers began to sense that this case against them was different; that a full-court press meant nothing when the opposing counsel was the United States of America. Was it really possible the small-town lawyers had compiled enough evidence to indict both the company and its top executives on a host of felony charges, not just for misbranding the drug but also for mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering? It seemed so, according to a memo written by the federal prosecutors to Brownlee at the time.
Conspicuously absent from the courthouse drama was the family that owned the company and its 214 affiliates worldwide- and benefited the most from the drug’s sale. Purdue had earned over $2.8 billion from the drug by 2007, including $595 million in earnings in 2006 alone. Unlike a public company that answers to shareholders, privately held Purdue answered only to the Sacklers.
In 2015, the family would earn its way onto Forbes’s “America’s Richest Families” list. With an estimated net worth of $14 billion, the OxyContin clan would edge out such storied families as the Busches, Mellons, and Rockefellers. Having gone from selling earwax remover and laxatives to the most lucrative drug in the world, the family had museum wings and college institutes named for it from Boston to Tel Aviv.
Awareness of the opioid crisis has typically come in waves, often celebrity-studded and well covered by the media: the death by overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman, in 2014, then two years later the death of Prince. But for ordinary citizens, the news that opioids had crossed over from Not me and not anyone I know to mainstream traveled more slowly, in dribs and drabs, maybe when the Cincinnati Enquirer became the first newspaper in the country to dedicate a reporter solely to the heroin beat.
The skin-popping weathermen represented Roanoke’s first wake-up call. But it was wrongly viewed, by myself and other area journalists, as an anomaly. The story was so tawdry that the Roanoke Times assigned two beat reporters to track it, one from courts and the other from media and entertainment. It received much more attention, for instance, than the national story that broke in our backyard when Purdue Pharma settled with the feds a year later.
In rural counties decimated by globalization, automation, and the decline of coal, the invisible hand manifested in soaring crime, food insecurity, and disability claims. In Martinsville and surrounding Henry County, unemployment rates rose to above 20 percent, food stamp claims more than tripled, and disability rates went up 60.4 percent…
It was easy to understand the connection between joblessness and hunger, to get that hunger fueled some of the crime. It was growing clearer, too, that the federal disability program was becoming a de facto safety net for the formerly employed, a well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous way of incentivizing poor people to stay sick, with mental illness and chronic pain—conditions that are hard to prove and frequently associated with mental health and substance use disorders—prompting the majority of disability awards.
In the picturesque Shenandoah Valley town of Woodstock, more than two hours north of Roanoke, bulk heroin cut in a Harlem lab had just made its way down I-81. It was the last thing Shenandoah County sergeant Brent Lutz, a Woodstock native, would have expected to find himself doing: stalking a major heroin dealer. But here he was, at all hours of the day and night, clutching a pair of binoculars while crouched in the upstairs bedroom of his cousin’s house a few miles outside of town. He’d spent so much time there in recent days that the mile-wide stench of chicken entrails coming from George’s Chicken across the road no longer bothered him.
Later that day, when Metcalf finally got his first close-up look at Ronnie Jones in a county jail interviewing room in Front Royal, he found him to be “very smug, very arrogant.”
The feeling was mutual. “He was very aggressive; he harassed people,” Jones said of Metcalf. Jones hated him for delivering a subpoena to the mother of his oldest child—at work, embarrassing and intimidating her, he said—and for interviewing Jones’s mom.
NIDA, the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization, and the White House drug czar’s office would all agree that indefinite (and maybe even lifelong) maintenance treatment is superior to abstinence-based rehab for opioid-use disorder. And even Hazelden, the Betty Ford-affiliated center that originated the concept of the twenty-eight-day rehab, changed its stance on medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, offering Suboxone to some patients in 2012.
But the rehab Jesse went to was aimed at abstinence, as most were, then and now.
By 2014, the suburban heroin-dealing scene had become entrenched in Roanoke’s McMansion subdivisions and poor neighborhoods alike. But the largest dealers weren’t twice-convicted felons like Ronnie Jones with elaborate dope-cutting schemes, multiple cars, and hired mules. They were local users, many of them female, dispatched to buy the heroin from a bulk dealer out of state, in exchange for a cut. And they were as elusive as hell to catch.
Tess was nearly seven months pregnant when she left jail in June 2015. For a month, she lived with her mom and tried to make a go of it with her boyfriend, the baby’s father—“disastrous,” Patricia and Tess agreed—before they found a private treatment center two hours away that would take Tess during her final month of pregnancy. Private insurance covered most of the $20,000 bill while her dad paid the $6,500 deductible, using the remainder of Tess’s college-savings fund. The Life Center of Galax was one of the few Virginia facilities that accepted patients on medication-assisted treatment (methadone or buprenorphine). Tess was now taking Subutex, a form of buprenorphine then recommended for some pregnant mothers. (Suboxone is typically the preferred MAT for opioid users because it also contains naloxone, an opiate blocker; Subutex, which is buprenorphine with no added blocker, was then considered safer for the baby but more likely to be abused by the mom.)
Harm reduction remained slow to catch on in most of the Bible Belt, including Roanoke. When I told Janine about an idea hatched at an opioid brainstorming session in Boston—to segregate users on a boat in international waters, where they could legally inject under medical supervision, ideally then transitioning to counseling and MAT—she was repulsed. “That’s crazy! We’ve created this problem, and now we decide we’re just going to continue to let it happen, and that’s the answer?”
And yet she was miles ahead of most leaders in her conservative community. She’d told her son’s story recently to the local school board and county officials, hoping to raise money for the county’s risk prevention council, which was currently running on fumes and a few small federal grants. She’d explained how she’d pulled strings to get her kids into the Hidden Valley school zone because she considered it a superior place to raise children. But the affluence she believed would protect her family had instead allowed the festering of shame and inaction. Almost daily the Hope Initiative took a call about a heroin user from Hidden Valley or nearby Cave Spring, and police data showed that the problem was worse by far in those two communities than in other, less affluent areas of the county.
I hoped the stories of Ronnie Jones and his victims would illuminate the ruts in both a criminal justice system that pursues a punishment-fits-all plan when the truth is much more complicated and a strained medical system that overtreats people with painkillers until the moment addiction sets in—and health care scarcity becomes the rule.
I hoped, too, that my interview with Jones would help answer Kristi Fernandez’s questions about what led to her son Jesse’s premature death. Was Ronnie Jones really the monster that law enforcement officials made him out to be? Had the statewide corrections behemoth that returns two thousand ex-offenders a year to Virginia’s cities, counties, and towns played a role in his revolving door of failures?
The birthplace of the modern opioid epidemic—central Appalachia—deserves the final word in this story. It is, after all, the place where I witnessed the holiest jumble of unmet needs, where I shadowed yet more angels, in the form of worn-out EMTs and preachers, probation officers and nurse-practitioners. Whether they were attending fiery public hearings to advocate for more public spending, serving suppers to the addicted in church basements, or driving creaky RVs-turned-mobile-clinics around hairpin curves, they were acting in accordance with the scripture that nurse-practitioner Teresa Gardner Tyson had embroidered on the back of her white coat:
Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:40)
If the federal government wouldn’t step in to save Appalachia, if it steadfastly refused to elevate methods of treatment, research, and harm reduction over punishment and jail, Appalachia would have to save itself.
Tess was still homeless, and another week passed before she called Patricia with an address via a borrowed phone, possibly belonging to a current or former pimp. “Are you in danger?” her mom asked, and Tess claimed she was not, repeating a line she often said: “I’m a soldier, Mom. I’ll be fine.
“Yes, love.” Patricia responded. “But sometimes even soldiers fall.”
It was January 2, Tess’s birthday. She would’ve been twenty-nine.
Patricia tucked the treasures of her daughter’s life inside the vest—a picture of her boy and one of his cotton onesies that was Tess’s favorite, some strands of Koda’s hair, and a sand dollar.