The war on drugs in America seems to have backfired in Appalachia, as former pill addicts continue to open avenues for heroin dealers from cities including Detroit and Columbus, as well as crystal meth manufacurers much closer to home.

“The war on drugs. Has it been a success? No. It has not,” said Greenup County Sheriff Keith Cooper, who has witnessed drug use by local residents transition from pain pills to crystal meth and heroin in recent years.

Cooper said heroin in this area is the direct result of recent efforts to eliminate sources for prescription painkillers.

“Since the pills became harder to get, they started with the heroin because they could get it and it is cheaper,” Cooper said.

“OC (oxycodone) is synthetic, but it is the same type of buzz that you get. But, it is pharmaceutical and there is a purity there so they knew how much to take. When someone buys a balloon of heroin, that’s when you start having overdoses. They have to kind of experiment on themselves to know how much they need to take,” Cooper said.

For many, Cooper said addiction seems to be a lifestyle choice.

“The problem is their mindset. They have to be high on something,” he said, adding the same syndrome also drives the use of methamphetamine. “People are going to get high on something.”

The sheriff said he believes in early education to keep children away from illegal drugs as they grow up, although he understands things like peer pressure can go a long way to negate a “Just Say No” mentality.

“Society has glorified it (drug use) through music and movies where you see them running lines of coke. Now, the heroes are bad guys three-fourths of the time. And peer pressure. I can go in as the sheriff and tell them to just say no, but peer pressure is a very strong thing, for a kid especially. It’s thrown at them every day. Every party they go to, there’s 30s (Oxycontin tablets) available, and heroin and there is weed,” he said. “We are outnumbered so much. Just say no is a good first step, but you have to know where that road goes. Getting people to see that is the hard part.”

In Greenup County, Cooper said he’s seen a few addicts turn to pain clinics rather than endure jail time, although motivation to instead become clean and sober is rarely the result.

“If they are addicted to one thing and you take that away, they have got it in their minds that they just can’t get through the day,” he said. “The first thing they think in the morning is ‘Do I have enough money for an OC or balloon of heroin?’ Once they are in that lifestyle it (sobriety) doesn’t occur to them.”

Johnson County

Dwayne Price, a retired Kentucky State Police trooper who now serves as sheriff of Johnson County, said he is just waiting for heroin to show up there.

“We have a C.I. (confidential informant) who says he can get it, but as of right now we have not made a buy,” Price said, adding he had recently heard about someone being caught with six ounces of heroin headed toward neighboring Floyd County.

Price said methadone that has been diverted from legal pain clinics, as well as pharmaceutical hydrocodone pills, seem to be the most popular drugs among abusers and addicts in that area. Suboxone tablets, which are administered much like methadone as a substitute therapy for addicted patients, are also available as a “street drug” with abusers taking double or triple doses to get high, Price said.

Lawrence County

“We are seeing more of it coming into Lawrence County,” said Sheriff Garrett Roberts, who noted crystal meth seems to be the most popular illegal drug of choice there, although “Now, we’re starting to see the heroin from Huntington.”

Roberts said the “sunshine pipeline” for prescription drugs from Florida dried up significantly after Kentucky and Florida officials teamed up to solve that problem. The crime of “doctor shopping” also seemed to be curtailed, he said, although some addicts simply switched source states and began traveling to see doctors in Texas to get pills.

While Lawrence County has not experienced heroin overdose deaths “yet,” Roberts said he believes addicts are supplying their own needs more than trying to make a profit.

“You can look at them and tell they’re not making any money on it,” he said, adding the city of Louisa has had more incidents with heroin, while crystal meth tends to be the problem in rural areas of the county.


Police Chief Greg Fugitt cited afforability as a primary reason for heroin use in the wake of the prescription pain pill epidemic.

“We started seeing it a little over a year ago and the reason is cost,” he said. “OC goes for a dollar or more a milligram. Heroin is $15 to $20 for a balloon, or one-tenth of a gram.”

The heroin confiscated by Louisa’s police officers is believed to have been imported from Cincinnati and Columbus by local people with drug connections in those cities, Fugitt said, although some is believed to have come from sources in Huntington or Ashland. Police recently busted an Ashland man who was thought to be selling heroin while staying at a Louisa hotel, he said, although officers instead found he had crack cocaine.

“We are not getting overrun with it,” Fugitt said. “But it is making its way up the river.”

TIM PRESTON can be reached at or (606) 326-2651.

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