After Years of Struggling with Opioids, This W.Va. Town Is Facing a Not-So-New Epidemic: Meth
Charles Glover doesn’t mince words when assessing Clarksburg, West Virginia, the town where he was raised and still lives today.
“It’s not Clarksburg anymore,” Glover says. “It’s Methburg.”
Methburg. As in methamphetamines, a drug that ravaged his community more than a decade ago and today is coming back just as strong.
Glover, 49, known as “Preacher” to his friends, says that come late afternoon, the downtown streets of the city of about 16,000 – most especially the blocks that surround the Clarksburg Mission, above which a neon cross avows “Jesus Saves” – metamorphosize.
“People just come out of the woodwork,” he says. By 4 in the afternoon, give or take, the streets have opened for business. And methamphetamine is the principal commodity, Glover says.
Glover’s a familiar face at the Mission, a mentor. A self-described “recovered cocaine addict,” today he’s seeking help in getting his son, who he recently caught injecting meth in the bathroom of their home, into an inpatient rehab program.
Glover is frightened not only for his son, but for so many to whom he ministers.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that overdose deaths from methamphetamine climbed from 547 in 1999 to 10,333 in 2017. Far more people continue to die from opioid-related overdoses – 47,600 in 2017 – but as the street price of meth continues to drop, health care professionals in Appalachia and beyond are deeply concerned by the trend. Meth is linked to hepatitis C infection, stroke and, of particular concern to law enforcement, psychosis.
Clarksburg stands testament to a worsening crisis. Glover says he began seeing the return of meth, after peaking in the ’90s, about three years ago, “and then it just started escalating.”
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” Lou Ortenzio, the Mission’s executive director, says of the litany of drugs that have cycled through his community over the past two decades. “You figure that you’ve got something taken care of, and something else pops up.”
“Our public safety officers warned us two years ago that meth was on the way back,” he says. “The first assistant deputy sheriff came to one of our recovery meetings and said meth is coming back, you guys need to be prepared.”
“I know that there’s a demon in this that’s making this happen to everybody,” Glover allows. “And it’s not just the person that’s using that it’s affecting. It’s affecting the whole family of that person.”
It’s affecting, in fact, an entire city.
There’s a rough-hewn quaintness to Clarksburg, situated halfway between Charleston, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh. The glass industry once nourished middle-class neighborhoods that now show their age. That industry is long-since departed, the economy in steady decline.
Then this, the litany: prescription painkillers, heroin, synthetic heroin, methamphetamine.
Clarksburg is “a great town to be born and raised in,” Gary Hamrick, head of the Harrison County Community Corrections Program and a school board member, says from personal experience. “But right now, we’re on the edge.”
Methamphetamine is a drug that stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain, rendering a euphoric effect. It’s injected, smoked, snorted or swallowed. Those under its influence are likely to experience sudden mood swings, paranoia, insomnia.
Then there’s the tweaking, which comes as that euphoria abandons the body and the craving descends. Your skin begins to crawl; hallucinations creep in. These are tense, potentially violent hours.
Among Hamrick’s responsibilities is the operation of the county’s Day Report Center, an alternative to incarceration that provides substance-abuse counseling, GED preparation and other services. Everyone who enters the program must be drug screened.
Hamrick calls the Day Report Center “ground zero.”
“When a new drug comes to town, we’re probably the first ones that are going to see it,” he says. What they’re seeing most prevalently today is meth.
“Probably for every 20 drug screens that are positive, two would be opioids and 18 would be meth,” Hamrick says. “You may have both in there, which is kind of mind blowing. But the majority – probably at least 80 percent of every positive or more – is going to be meth.”
‘I Go Crazy’
“I’ve got close to 20 years wrapped up in methamphetamine use, heroin use, benzos and alcohol,” says Rodney Weaver, 37.
Weaver was born in the nearby town of Spelter, a community just north of Clarksburg with a population of less than 400. “I started using drugs whenever I was 13,” he says. “Started smoking weed, started drinking beer. I know that’s young. By the time I was 16, I started using pain pills.”
He began injecting at 17 and transitioned into “mainly a benzos and methamphetamine user.” Weaver was partial to the rush of meth. “It’s just that I’d rather go fast than sleep. You do enough sleeping when you die, was my theory on it.”
Weaver has spent more than a decade in prisons, mental institutions, rehab facilities and halfway houses. “I’ve not got to spend much of an adult life doing anything [productive].”
“I come from a mom and dad that love me to death,” he says. “I see some people that’ve had bad childhoods, and it’s like, ‘Well, I understand that. That makes sense.’ …Whereas, I grew up having everything; I didn’t want for nothing.”
“At 17, I started riding Harleys,” Weaver says. “I started hanging out with the wrong crowd of guys.”
He’d work intermittently on drilling rigs in the Great Plains and Colorado. He says meth was prominent in that region of the country at the time, more readily available than any other drug. “So, I’d be out there with those guys doing that and I would bring it back home with me.”
He was also running afoul of the law. “Most of my charges are violent charges. That’s meth-induced psychosis. I get on those drugs and I go crazy.”
When Weaver was 24, he held some people hostage in a house for 26 days in response to money he was owed, culminating in a 14-and-a-half-hour standoff with police. He served four and a half years.
Meth is a high-velocity vehicle, the diametric opposite of heroin, a distinction of significance to Hamrick at the Day Report Center.
“We have to be a little bit more vigilant,” he says of meth users in his facility. “They’re kind of on the edge.”
“I hate to say you want one over the other,” Hamrick says. “But opioid addiction is much easier on a facility like us, because with meth, I don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s more dangerous.”
But heroin is more expensive on the street than meth. When Weaver began using it nearly two decades ago, meth cost $1,500 dollars an ounce. Seated in the Mission today, he says, “I can leave right here, right now, walk out that door, not go very far off in this area and get an ounce of that drug for 250 bucks.”
Now 17 months drug free, Weaver is plenty worried about what the meth users in his community are consuming. “What these guys around here are doing is what they consider ‘grow dope.’” It’s made in a bucket or cooler. “It’s Joe Schmo up the road [who] dug a three-foot hole in the ground and put a five-gallon bucket in it.” Thompson’s WaterSeal, charcoal, ammonia, mop strings, a few other inexpensive ingredients – meth made cheap and easy.
“Twenty-eight days later,” Weaver explains, “they go out and pull it out of the ground, wash it off, and they start selling it to these guys.”
And it’s clear who’s using. “It’s the thousand-mile stare,” he says. “It’s that look of there’s nobody home, because there’s not.”
The Right Place
Lou Ortenzio was once a family practitioner in Clarksburg. He operated a free clinic and was named Citizen of the Year in 1992. A Vicodin addiction took him down. He lost his family and, in 2005, after a conviction for writing fraudulent opioid prescriptions, his medical license. By that point, he’d re-emerged, quit using and forged a new path, one dedicated to others’ recovery.
“It’s God’s provision, God’s job for me to do,” Ortenzio says of his work at the Mission and at Celebrate Recovery – a national ministry that operates out of Clarksburg Baptist Church, a few blocks away – where he oversees recovery coach training. “I was a contributor to the opiate epidemic and an early casualty. Now I’m trying to make a difference.”
“I’m still in health care,” he says. “I used to be prescribing pills. Now I prescribe recovery.”
Ortenzio describes a subculture occasioned by meth – a subculture of backpackers, wandering the streets with their every possession, often carrying a baseball bat for protection and/or persuasion.
Homelessness has worsened in Clarksburg, he says, so much so that its increase was cited as a reason members of the city council voted to suspend its city manager this month.
“In spite of all our efforts, in spite of a housing-first program, trying to get people rapid-recovery housing, permanent-supportive housing and all these HUD programs – homelessness nonetheless has increased,” Ortenzio says.
As for Weaver, he’s where he feels he should be, rooming in a dorm at the Mission with Scotty Cottrill, 35, originally from Shinnston, 20 miles north of the city on a two-lane highway. Cottrill’s now 200 days in recovery (“a great victory,” Ortenzio says).
“A lot of people get clean and they forget where they come from,” Weaver says. He’s eager to share what he’s experienced. “I’m raw, I’m blunt, and I stay out here on the streets.”
Several days ago, around the corner, he attempted to break up a fight between a man and a woman. The man pulled a gun on him.
“Seventeen months ago, I would have beat that boy to death right there where he stood. That gun would have never scared me. And the other day, it scared me.” It was the threat of losing so much gained that frightened him.
“I realized I’d take myself away from a bunch of people who love me,” his community. “One thing I’ve never had in my life is relationships. I’ve had reaction-ships. Today, I have relationships.”
Weaver knew he wasn’t the only one grappling with fear on the street that day. “A lot of these guys around here are scared,” he says. “They’re doing a drug that makes them extremely paranoid. They’re doing a drug that makes them completely separate themselves from reality.”
“I’ve been a taker for so long, the best thing I can do is give. I can give something.”
‘The Pain Ends’
Gary Hamrick fears that his community is “at the breaking point of frustration.”
West Virginians are, generally speaking, “of a hospitable nature,” he says. But “there are folks in this town who I know as being compassionate, very community oriented, very people oriented that have kind of reached their breaking point.”
Burglaries, bicycles stolen off your porch, shrubbery uprooted, copper stripped from your air conditioning unit – compassion ebbs. “Something kicks in, and you say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I worry that we’re coming to that.”
What further worries Hamrick is this: “We’ve allowed the government to come in and say, ‘You have an opioid crisis.’ Yeah, we did.”
And that crisis in Clarksburg looked like it did in most Appalachian communities – overprescribing doctors, a crackdown on prescriptions followed by the proliferation of heroin on the streets.
“The good thing is that our drug task forces around the area have been able to run those pills out. And then of course, the heroin comes in, and they’ve done a good job of eradicating that.”
Hamrick isn’t downplaying the gravity of the opioid crisis. But what happens if one day the federal government declares victory over opioids? Does Appalachia then lose its funding for prevention and treatment, for peer recovery coaches? Those resources were directed to his community to aid in the opioid crisis. But though the drug of choice has changed, addiction persists.
“We don’t have an opioid problem, we don’t have a meth problem,” Hamrick says, “we have a drug problem.” One not likely to soon dissipate.
“I fear for everybody out there who’s addicted,” Charles Glover says.
Ask him – ask Hamrick, Ortenzio, Weaver – where the solution lies: more effective coordination of services, more treatment facilities, vocational training, housing, transportation, the will to recover. All of the above.
“There’s always a path out,” Hamrick says.
Meanwhile, Rodney Weaver offers an aphorism of hope: “Hold on; the pain ends.”