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Crime & Punishment: VA Community's Fight with Oxycontin

July 5, 2011

PENNINGTON GAP, Va. - A small, rural area of southwestern Virginia was a launching pad in the 1990s for a then-newly-approved pain-relief drug, Oxycontin. According to locals, drug addiction and crime became rampant as a result.

The town of Pennington Gap was populated mostly by coal miners and loggers, the kinds of occupations prone to accidents and physical strain. It's also an area with a high rate of Medicaid recipients, which meant the drug would be accessible, despite lower incomes.

Beth Davies, executive director of The Addiction Education Center in Pennington Gap, says the release of Oxycontin changed the face of Appalachia.

"Once this drug came on the scene, it was totally different. Everything changed almost overnight because of this drug, and people became so quickly addicted to it; it was so powerful."

Now, Oxycontin addiction is an issue nationwide that knows no racial or socio-economic boundaries. Davies advocates treatment and drug courts for nonviolent offenders who end up in the criminal justice system as a result of addiction issues.

She says the once-sleepy town saw a sudden crime wave, as people began breaking into pharmacies to steal Oxycontin, and into homes, to steal whatever they could to get money for the drug.

"We had 105 people in a jail that would house something like 30 people, on the floor, no beds for them, and so forth. That was in our little county jail."

At the time, there were no drug courts in the rural area, so Davies says her organization, along with others such as Virginia Organizing, worked with judges and law enforcement to find alternatives to jail.

"Financially, it would cost a lot less if we could get people treatment rather than paying to incarcerate them, only to come out and, because they didn't get any treatment, return almost immediately to prison."

Davies says recent research show drug courts reduce crime by as much as 45 percent compared with traditional sentencing models. About 75 percent of those who complete drug court are never arrested again.

In this year's Virginia General Assembly, legislation to allow federal funding for drug courts failed in the House after passing the Senate. Drug court advocates will push for similar legislation next year.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - VA