Heroin, Fentanyl and Prescription Drugs: West Virginia’s Crisis

The drug addiction and abuse problem is approaching a crisis level in West Virginia with the state now leading the entire nation in overdoses. Heroin, fentanyl and controlled prescription drugs (CPDs) are at the forefront of the problem and are responsible for the majority of the state’s overdoses.

Controlled Prescription Drugs

Many West Virginians have physically demanding jobs in mining, manufacturing and timbering. Those professions can cause injuries that need to be treated with opioid pain relievers – such as oxycodone, Percocet and Opana – and as a result, the state has one of the highest opioid prescription rates in the country.1 Though the drugs can be prescribed legitimately, since they are very addictive, many end up abusing them and trying to get them illegally when their prescriptions run out. There are also users who were never prescribed the medication and have always used the drugs illegally and recreationally.

Here are a few ways users get the prescription drugs illegally:

Doctors and Healthcare providers. Some licensed professionals will unlawfully write prescriptions for people who don’t have a legitimate medical need in exchange for money. In other cases, doctors are lied to by so-called “doctor shoppers” who attempt to satisfy their drug addiction by getting prescriptions from a variety of physicians.2

Thievery.  In some cases, pharmacy workers will steal the prescription meds and sell to street drug dealers. Other times, robbers target pharmacies to steal the medication and sell them.

The Out-of-state Connection. Drug dealers, many from Detroit, travel by car or bus to transport the controlled prescription drugs into West Virginia.2

Growing Threat: Heroin and Fentanyl

Prescription drug abuse has devastated the state for years, but now heroin and fentanyl – both highly addictive and cheaper opioids – are on the rise. In fact, many heroin users started off as CPD abusers.3 

Heroin is an opiate drug processed from morphine and extracted from certain poppy plants. It is highly addictive, cheaper than prescription medication and produces a euphoric high. In August 2016, during just a four hour period, 27 people overdosed from heroin in Huntington, West Virginia.4 Out-of-state dealers bring in a large amount of the state’s heroin supply.


When used legally, fentanyl is a prescription painkiller. On a small scale, the drug is diverted from the legitimate market for sale. But it is illegal fentanyl, mostly made in Chinese and Mexican underground labs, that is largely responsible for the current epidemic across the country.5 

Users are attracted to fentanyl’s strong, euphoric high. The addiction is very strong. Many users constantly seek out the drug to avoid withdrawal.5

Fentanyl overdose deaths in West Virginia went up by more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2015. Dealers often mix fentanyl and heroin, or market fentanyl as heroin, so many times users don’t really know what they are taking when they use the drug.2


1David Gutman, “How did WV come to lead the nation in overdoses?” Charleston Gazette-Mail; October 17, 2015; http://www.wvgazettemail.com (accessed May 2016).

2Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

3"Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use." National Institute on Drug Abuse; December 2015; https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-bet... (accessed April 2017)

4Tony Marco, “West Virginia City Has 27 Heroin Overdoses in 4 Hours.” CNN; August 18, 2016; http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/17/health/west-virginia-city-has-27-heroin-overdoses-in-4-hours/  (accessed April 2017)

52016 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary Link: https://www.dea.gov/resource-center/DIR-001-17%202016%20NDTA%20Summary.pdf