As It Happens

How a West Virginia town of 3,000 people was deluged with 20 million opioid pills

Former pharmacist Don Perdue calls the pharmaceutical industry's role in the West Virginia opioid crisis "beyond belief and beneath contempt."
Former state delegate and pharmacist Don Perdue speaks on the floor of the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2015. (Don Perdue)

Story transcript

Williamson, W.Va., is a small town with a big opioid problem.

Over a 10-year period, more than 20 million opioid pills were brought into Williamson, shipped from drug companies to just two pharmacies, all to serve a population of about 3,000 people. This, according to an ongoing investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

We had a drug industry that was beyond belief and beneath contempt.-Don Perdue, former state delegate and pharmacist

Don Perdue had a front-row seat to the opioid epidemic as a pharmacist in West Virginia, and as a state delegate.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the growth of the opioid epidemic in his state.

When did you first start to see signs of the opioid crisis?

I was a practicing pharmacist in West Virginia for a very long time. I initially started seeing the growth of the problem around 2002. I saw whole families deteriorate before my eyes. I saw people bringing in prescriptions for extremely large quantities of narcotics. I saw we were utilizing more and more and more of those controlled substances. 
OxyContin was aggressively marketed as a revolutionary painkiller. But many patients became addicted, leading to a country-wide class action lawsuit against its maker, Purdue Pharma (Canada). (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

As a pharmacist, what were you back then able to do when someone handed you a prescription for say, Oxycontin or Vicodin, did you have any recourse?

You could lie, which happens much more often than anybody would like to admit, and say 'I don't have that, I don't have that strength, I don't have that dose.'

You could be very honest, and say 'You've come from more than 50 miles away, I don't think this is legitimate, I really can't fill this prescription.' 

Right now, we're all drowning in deep water.- Don Perdue, former state delegate and pharmacist

Those were the two avenues you could travel down if you were a practicing pharmacist. The third of course was to go ahead and fill it. And the pharmacy chains in those days certainly encouraged filling these prescriptions — most of them were high priced. 

We learned this week that the town of Williamson received 20 million pills in 10 years. How is that possible?

It's possible because we had a system that was not monitoring what was going on. We had a drug industry that was beyond belief and beneath contempt, that was solely targeting their profits. And then we had a system that did not lend itself to meaningful reportage. 
Don Perdue says he first started noticing the rise in demand for prescription painkillers in 2002, in his work as a pharmacist. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

Do you see a way out of this for West Virginia?

I do. You've got to invest in it. It's a four-pronged approach: prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery. If you approach it from those four prongs, and invest in it, you can get upstream of the problem. Right now, we're all drowning in deep water. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Don Perdue in the player above.

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