NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with reporter Melissa Brown of the Montgomery Advertiser about her reporting on Walker County, Ala., which was flooded with tens of millions of opioid pills.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The pills were everywhere. That is how one resident of Walker County, Ala., remembers the height of the opioid epidemic. In a six-year period, more than 66 million opioid pills flooded the rural county, all through legal prescriptions. We know that number thanks to information from a drug enforcement administration database. The Washington Post had made it public last month. The hope was that local journalists would use the database to report on the impact of the opioid crisis in their communities, and reporter Melissa Brown of the Montgomery Advertiser did just that. She joins me now.
MELISSA BROWN: Hi. Thank you for having me.
CHANG: So, Melissa, I understand that you decided to go pretty far from where you're ordinarily based in Montgomery, Ala. You went to Walker County. Why did you choose to go there?
BROWN: Walker County is several hours from where we're based in Montgomery, Ala. But according to the DEA data, Walker is the worst county in Alabama for these prescription drugs that flooded into the state. And I'm actually from that area of Alabama. That's northwest Alabama, kind of nestled up in the corner there.
CHANG: Now what is it about Walker County that would make it a prime place for people to be prescribed painkillers?
BROWN: That's a big question right now, and I think it's something that is going to be explored for a lot of years. But Walker County was home to a lot of mining operations. Before that, manufacturing. So we're looking at very labor intensive, dangerous work. Injuries in mining and manufacturing could be catastrophic, cause a lot of chronic pain. So there are some theories out there that once these mining jobs started to disappear, prescriptions kept going. And it's really become an economical issue as much as a health care one.
CHANG: And when you visited Walker County for this story, what did you find there? I mean, how much had it transformed, at least compared to the Walker County you remember growing up?
BROWN: Something that struck me was how much this issue has rippled into every aspect of everyday life in Walker County. The opioid epidemic we talk about as a health care issue, a mental health issue, but it's really become in these communities a huge criminal justice issue. One local judge told me that more than 90% of property crime that he sees in the county is directly related to drug abuse and addiction issues.
And these people are getting caught into this cycle that is very, very hard to break when you think about court costs, obviously criminal sentences. And so it's beyond just the addiction issues, and it's making it very, very difficult for people to break these cycles.
CHANG: And what about all the kids there? I mean, kids whose parents have died from overdoses or whose parents are incarcerated now, how has the foster care system in Walker County been able to keep up?
BROWN: Sure, there has been an increase across the state in terms of foster care entries, children who have to be taken further from their homes for whatever reasons. A lot of these kids do get reunited back with their families. But some data that I've recently obtained from the state shows us that in Walker County, nearly half of all foster care cases are directly tied to drug abuse.
CHANG: When you talk to the residents in Walker County, I mean, how do they talk about the community rebuilding after something like this? Do you hear hope?
BROWN: There is definitely some hope that addiction is recognized as a mental health issue, and there is some hope that things like law enforcement and government entities are trying to connect people with help versus just prosecuting these issues. It's definitely - it's a multifaceted problem, and I think people in the county realize that and are trying to come up with multifaceted solutions.
A lot of the solutions are faith-based, which makes sense for the area. It's a highly religious area. But there may be concerns out there that that could turn certain people away. So I think there is some hope, but there is also still a lot of people hurting there. And the people who are working in that space are quite overwhelmed and could always use more resources.
CHANG: That's Melissa Brown, a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. Thank you very much for joining us today, Melissa.
BROWN: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
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