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Appalachia's heroin and opiate problem is insideous, sad, and seemingly unstoppable.

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According to a Feb. 26, 2011, online article published by The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, The fifth-most-prescribed pain medication in the world, "oxy," or "OC," is a favorite of addicts, who crush and snort it or dilute it with water and inject it for a heroin-like rush. It's an epidemic caused by a flood of pain pills into the area -- plenty from legal local pain clinics and others imported from Florida and the Detroit area by dealers looking for an easy buck, writes Plain Dealer journalist Aaron Marshall.

At the half-dozen or so pain clinics in this Appalachian county along the banks of the Ohio River, a handful of licensed doctors pump out prescriptions for an estimated 35 million pain pills a year to an ever-mushrooming population of pill-crazed patients who come from near and far just to cop, Marshall writes.

Do the math, and it comes to roughly 460 pills for every man, woman and child in this county of 76,000 residents, according to 2008 state pharmacy board statistics, Marshall continues. It's gotten so bad that last year the local health commissioner declared a public health emergency, a rare step usually reserved for disease outbreaks.

Lisa Roberts, a city of Portsmouth public-health nurse on the front lines of theepidemic, says locals call it the "attack of the pill heads." She says a "pharmaceutical atom bomb" has brought the county to the verge of complete social collapse, The Plain Dealer article reads.

Statistics as bleak as tombstones back up Roberts' apocalyptic talk: The county has seen a 360 percent increase in accidental drug-overdose deaths and has the highest Hepatitis C rate in Ohio, a rate that has nearly quadrupled in the past five years, thanks to junkies who are shooting up, The Plain Dealer reports.

For Appalachia, and even the country as a whole, it's time to stop placing labels and stigmas on opiate abusers, particularly heroin abusers who are trapped inside the throes of something so strong and nefarious, to use Bible-belt vernacular, "It's straight from the devil himself". For the typical heroin addict, heroin is his or her mistress or sugar daddy. But it's the devil's wife. Treatment and care are in order for these sick unfortunate people, not ridicule and blame.

It is also imperative for America to start attacking its drug problem with a vengeance. Things cannot continue as they have been rolling. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in the USA has quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. The large majority of these are drug offenders. Not only do millions of Americans have a drug problem, but America has a drug problem, too. Will legalizing marijuana help? Will legalizing pot lessen the strain on our nation's penal system and allow law enforcement to concentrate on bigger things, like investigating and arresting those involved with the trade of harder narcotics? It's really too early too tell and only time will tell. Is marijuana a window drug? There are too many opinions on this to actually make a determination. And the answer might indeed be, for some people, it's a window drug, but for others, it's not. Some argue that smoking tobacco can be considered using a window drug. One thing is certain, though, the proliferation of hard narcotics that not only kill people, but kill whole regions of the nation - as in the case of Appalachia - has to be addressed and a forward-spinning thwarting of this evil must take a much higher priority than it currently has, or has taken, in the past.

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Samuel Vargo worked as a full-time reporter and editor for more than 20 years at a number of daily newspapers and business journals. He was also an adjunct English professor at colleges and universities in Ohio, West Virginia, Mississippi (more...)

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