Eastern Kentucky is overflowing with talented people. Visual artists, poets, and musicians. Storytellers. Polymaths and inventors and bona fide geniuses.
Machinists and boilermakers who can take an item from concept to reality, and do it all themselves.
Carpenters and woodworkers who are as much artists as skilled tradespersons.
We have everything we need to build vibrant, active, exciting communities, right here where we are.
Yet, we seem perpetually stalled. Stuck in the mud of our own fatalism and the indifference – if not the outright hostility – of the world outside Appalachia to our people and the barriers that stand in their way.
The reasons for this are many and varied, from a history of outsiders exploiting our people and our resources (then leaving us to clean up the messes they left), to the cultural experiences of the people who settled the area. Full volumes could and have been dedicated to examining the nuances of this situation.
But there is one elephant in the room that needs to be dealt with before we can ever begin to address these other issues – our opioid epidemic.
We all know the trajectory of this cultural illness. OxyContin was introduced and originally indicated for use by terminal cancer patients and others undergoing end-of-life care. Doctors were then encouraged to prescribe them for other ailments – the internal company communications confirm this beyond a shadow of a doubt – and the conditions for the epidemic were set.
Pill mills popped up. Then a pipeline from Florida “pain clinics” to black market dealers in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Somewhere along the way the term “Hillbilly Heroin” was coined, and from there it became a media phenomenon.
It also became a way to containerize the problem, and further otherize the people of Appalachia. It wasn’t a “national problem” – even though drug abuse was, is, and continues to plague people all across the country – it was a problem for those “hillbillies” over there. Those intemperate and undisciplined hill folk.
As a result, federal action lagged and the problem escalated. It was only when it spread undeniably across the nation and different communities – individually unable to take on a powerhouse like the Sackler family – banded together to bring class action suits that we were able to begin holding them accountable for their targeting of our people.
Not only did the federal government do little to nothing to intercede, the Department of Justice continues their attempts to kill any deal with the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma; appearing more concerned with the pocketbooks of a corporation and the wealthy family behind it than the people whose lives they ruined.
Though, at last report, a judge had taken some action to overrule the DOJ and proceed with the $6 billion settlement, that’s still small potatoes to the people responsible. While the exact numbers aren’t current, OxyContin alone was at one point estimated to have brought the company more than $30 billion in revenue. The Sackler family was estimated to be worth around $13 billion before the settlement. But it’s hard to tell how much they squirreled away. Some estimates say the family took in around $10 billion of those profits from the company.
When we see folks get away with killing our family, and getting off with essentially an expensive slap on the wrist and continued lives of billionaire ease, it helps explain why that fatalism seems so ingrained in our society.
And there is no denying they profited off our deaths, specifically.
While the national drug overdose mortality rate for the late stages of the epidemic, from 2015-2019, was 28.7 deaths per 100,000 people, the rate for the Appalachian reason was 43.6 per 100,000 people. For Kentucky, it was 48.5 per 100,000.
For Carter County, is was 66.1 per 100,000 – more than double the national average. While Kentucky made their own settlement with Purdue Pharma, outside the $6 billion, no amount of money will bring those lives back.
It’s easy to see why fatalism reigns in a nation that tacitly condones such exploitation, but I’m not without hope.
As I noted in our introduction, we have talented and creative people here in our communities. And the best among them are coming together for a new initiative that aims to resolve this issue. Not today. Not tomorrow. But over the course of decades, and for generations to come.
The Pathfinder Initiative is still new, and in the planning phases, but the partnership between the Galaxy Project and the Warrior’s Path aims to provide opportunities for youth to have activities they can “just say yes” to, so they are too busy to worry about the need to “just say no.”
Though addiction is no respecter of socioeconomic status, it hits lower income families and individuals especially hard. They can’t afford treatment, and their children often can’t afford to participate in sports, arts programs, and other activities. As a result, they’re more likely to end up experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
If it seems like common sense, it’s because it is. But the data also backs it up. The Pathfinder Initiative is based on a system that has been proven to reduce teen drug use, and delay first experimentation with drugs, in the nation of Iceland. The Icelandic model also shows that the older an individual is the first time they try drugs or alcohol, the less likely they are to develop an addiction.
It’s all still early, but Galaxy Project director Chelsa Hamilton is a quiet workhorse. If you don’t know her, it isn’t because she isn’t capable. It’s because she’s got her head down, doing the hard work, and not seeking any of the spotlight or glory. She’s humble and soft-spoken. She’s also the kind of person who can change lives, given the opportunity. She knows how to make projects like Pathfinder work.
She gives me hope. And I hope you’ll support her and help her spread that hope to others too.