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This ongoing series takes in-depth look at the heroin epidemic spreading across West Virginia. From the story of the addict who could no longer get prescription narcotics on the street, the emergency room physician who cares for overdose patients, and the lawmakers working to reverse the trend--these are the voices and stories of West Virginians impacted by heroin.Has heroin affected you or someone you know? Share your story here.

Obama Begins Drug Addiction Prevention Conversation In West Virginia

Roxy Todd
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
High rate of poverty and unemployment are big factors in West Virginia's drug addiction problem. Some addicts, like Ashley (pictured with her family) grew up in a home where people used drugs.

In West Virginia, the number of heroin overdoses has increased almost five-fold since 2010. So today, President Obama will visit West Virginia to host a community discussion about what's needed to help prevent and stop drug addiction across the U.S.

It’s not exactly clear why West Virginia has had such a problem with drug abuse. There are a few factors -- high rates of poverty and unemployment. Also, some addicts grew up in families where people used drugs. That’s what happened to Ashley Counts.

"My mom she started out...she was on crack. And I mean that was hard, and I guess just seeing her use, she made it look fun. And that’s when it all began,” said Counts.

Counts is 24 and has dyed burgundy hair. On this day she sits inside an imposing stone courthouse -- because after crack, she moved on to prescription pills, and then to heroin.

“The high was just extraordinary to me.”

When she was arrested for heroin possession, Counts could have gone to prison for years. Instead, she was chosen for a diversion program focused on treatment. But there was a problem… all of the rehab clinics were full. So she waited in jail for a space to open up for five months. Her three children were sent to live with her grandfather.

"These aren't hardened criminals we're talking about. These are fathers. These are mothers. These are somebody's children, somebody's brother and sister."- Travis Zimmerman, who was Counts' probation officer.

Because of the backlog , many addicts in West Virginia never get help at all, says Doctor Edward Eskew, an addiction specialist in Charleston.

“When they are willing to try to change their lives and try to get help we have a really difficult time providing that help in a timely fashion here,” Eskew said.

State officials says about 60,000 people are seeking some sort of addiction treatment. But West Virginia only has enough facilities to help 15,000.

Even some in law enforcement think more addicts should get treatment, not prison.

Travis Zimmerman, who was Ashley Counts’ probation officer, recognizes the humanity of the situation. “These aren’t hardened criminals we’re talking about. These are fathers. These are mothers. These are somebody’s children, somebody’s brother and sister.”

Zimmerman works with addicts he sounds more like a counselor than a cop. Studies show when addicts get treatment, fewer return to crime. During his visit to West Virginia today, President Obama will talk about the need for judges and police officers to partner with substance abuse organizations to steer addicts away from drugs.

That’s exactly what helped Ashley Counts get clean and stay clean for 18 months now.

“They tell you wait for the miracle. Then you come to realize that you are the miracle. Look at what you went through in your life. People just need to step back and look at it. Look how grateful they are for the things they do have still. And that it’s not too late.”

A few months ago Counts got her GED -- and regained custody of her kids. She’s also engaged and just gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Amelia. 

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