"Dopesick" Roanoke Author on the Dealers, Doctors and Drug Company That Addicted America

Aug 2, 2018

A best-selling author from Roanoke has again put her journalism skills to work on a true story that reads like a novel.  Former Roanoke Times Reporter, Beth Macy, wrote “Factory Man” and “True Vine.”  Now, she’s out with her third book, this one, about the opioid crisis and its origins here in Virginia. It’s called “Dopesick.”

The title is a haunting refrain through the Beth Macy’s new book.  Dopesick is what addicts will do anything, to avoid becoming. 

Macy tells the real-life stories of hard working people who were prescribed drugs, touted as being non-addictive, who end up losing their jobs, their families and their lives. 

“In 1996,” she says, Purdue Pharma began marketing and selling Oxycontin, and this happened at the same time in medicine that there was this movement partially part funded by pharma companies, that we were under treating pain. And you started hearing about pain as the fifth vital sign and if you’ve visited a hospital in the last couple of decades, you’ve seen that ‘name your pain scale’ of 1 to10. You’ve seen that chart on the wall where doctors ask patients to rate their pain and of course that’s not an objective rating. That coupled with this aggressive marketing of Oxy really kind of seeded this crisis that we’re in the midst of today.”

Too often, those pills in people’s medicine cabinets tempt young people to sample them. Macy’s book tells the stories of promising students and sports standouts, who soon find a drug like OxyContin makes their lives a living hell if they don’t get more. Soon they’re trapped in a cycle, desperate to avoid the excruciating pain of withdrawal, from a drug billed as a safe, effective pain reliever.

Macy explains, “What had happened was, the sales reps went out and represented the product as being less addictive than other opioid’s because of its so-called time release mechanism. It was supposed to last 12 hours and because of that, it was only going to be addictive in quote ‘less than 1% of all cases.’

Macy’s reporting reveals how the company targeted people who work in industries where the injury rate is high, fishermen in Maine, coal miners in the Virginias and Kentucky; People already on conventional pain meds.

She studied the data and found,” The most distressed, rural communities, which have the highest unemployment rates and disability rates and where more people are dependent on food stamps, you find those communities have the highest percentage of people being prescribed opioids, which I found really chilling.”

Chilling, because in her first best-selling book, Factory Man, Macy details the loss of the once thriving furniture industry in southwest Virginia. --- The actor Tom Hanks is now in the process of turning that book into a film.  Macy says, back then, no one realized what happened there was actually setting the stage for the opioid crisis.

Macy talked with dozens of people, from all walks of life, who lost family members to the opioid epidemic. A Lee county doctor and his lawyer wife, who sounded the alarm early and begged the company to change the drug formula; Law enforcement, tracking illegal drug dealers supplying heroin to addicts who can no longer get pills; Affluent families who first sought to keep the problem quiet  but later opened up to Macy and fought like hell to save them.  She also did extensive interviews with people in the Roanoke U.S attorney’s office.  The first one to investigate in the early 2000’s and ultimately sue Purdue Pharma in 2007.

“The only way I could bear to live in this material was to find the people who were fighting back.”  There were so many stories, so many tragedies to unwind. She says a writer friend, Roland Lazenby suggested she ‘find the helpers’ and focus on them.

There are several heroes in the book.  There are also villains. Some have names and addresses but one is elusive, unfathomable to those who have not been touched by it, deadly to so many and stalking so many more.

“In the last 15 years we’ve lost 3-hundrerd thousand American to drug overdose. Were expected to lose that many in only the next 5. We need to get our hands around it. We need to understand how we got here. We need to elect leaders who are going to move us forward from it and I’m hoping after you close the pages of this book and maybe wipe a tear from your eye, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what these families are going through and you'll do those things."

In recent months, several Virginia counties and the state filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. In the 2007 case by Roanoke’s U.S. Attorneys, the company pleaded guilty and was fined 6-hundred-million dollars.  No one went to jail. Macy recalls, one of the prosecutors in that case told her, if more white-collar criminals did go to jail, other white-collar criminals might start to listen.