Appalachian Pillbillies

Appalachia is the cultural region that stretches along the famous Appalachian Mountain Trail. If you visit this area, the verdant rolling hills and breathtaking natural landscapes are hard to miss. However, when one looks beneath the beautiful facade, one uncovers a debilitating and dark pattern of widespread prescription drug abuse. Although prescription drug abuse is not an uncommon in other areas around the world, addiction to natural or synthetic opioids or painkillers (such as oxycodone, morphine, codeine, methadone, among others) has reached unprecedented levels in Appalachia. The abuse is so widespread that, in fact, a new term has been coined solely to describe those addicted: pillbillies.

A Typical Appalachian Town

Why are Opiates So Popular in Appalachia?

The high rate of addiction in Appalachia is thought to be caused in part by the pervasive poverty of the area, where the poverty rate is three times the national rate. Unfortunately, the high poverty rate both causes and is caused by the higher frequency of prescription drug abuse. Those who are addicted have trouble maintaining jobs, whereas people who are looking for jobs are likely unable to find many (due to the low number of them due to poor economic growth). This cycle leads to anxiety and poverty, which fuels drug abuse. Kids who were reared by their grandparents because their own parents were abusers are now becoming abusers themselves. In 2011, one out of ten newborn babies tested positive for drugs.
The Obama administration declared plans to combat prescription drug abuse and in 2010 and 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, aided by many local police departments, arrested sixteen people in an investigation given the moniker “Operation Pillbilly“. Investigators discovered that the group of pillbillies arrested had been presenting fake prescriptions to pharmacies over several years in the Appalachian areas of Tennessee and North Carolina. During their tenure, the group has been estimated to have attained 130,000 pills, valued at approximately $4 million. Those arrested shed light on the wide variety of people addicted to prescription drugs: both male and female, ranging in age from early 20’s to late 40’s. All of the sixteen people have been federally sentenced, some with up to six years in prison.

Nationally, the number of deaths caused by prescription drugs has now surpassed the combined death toll caused by crack cocaine in the 1980s and heroin in the 1970s. Too many families have suffered a devastating loss due to prescription drug addiction, and it is time that this country does something to address this ever-growing problem.

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