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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reflections on the Drug Wars in Appalachia

The following was originally posted at the Cyberhillbilly blog: Presaging my career as a gadfly writer (i.e. blogger) was an incident that happened while I was in 7th grade at Big Creek Elementary in Leslie County. The two most popular and attractive kids in our class, Keith and Katrina, had a crush on one another. Keith, always a better basketball player than student, employed, pro bono, yours truly to write a love poem for him. It was a tongue in cheek assignment, so I quoted something silly from popular TV sitcom Three's Company that I’d heard Mr. Farley say. Fortunately for Keith, before that letter could be passed on it was discovered by school authorities who promptly took it to the principle.

That letter resulted in my being hauled before the principle for a conference with my parents. Although I grew up in a family where I was always considered in the wrong when it came to a conflict with school officials (today, parents seemingly presume the opposite) this was one case where they felt it was much ado about nothing. In fact, they were more insulted by my cheesy writing than anything else.

My mom and I still laugh about that episode several times a year, but it’s a bittersweet memory. After 7th grade I transferred to the school system in Clay County and lost contact with Keith and Katrina. I’d still hear about them on occasion, but was never again close. Around 2005 both Katrina and Keith died in their early thirties. The latter was killed in an accident where alcohol was a factor. The former died of a drug related illness. Two young people who’d once been the stars of their class are now dead thanks to drugs and poor decisions. Both left kids behind.

Stories such as these, sadly, aren’t unusual in Appalachia. Drugs have taken a severe toll on our people. They caused another friend from Big Creek to commit suicide. They caused another classmate from 7th grade to run off the road on Buffalo mountain; he didn’t survive the crash. They killed two of my neighbors. When I practiced law in London, they killed at least three of my clients (and that was in just a two year period.)

Earlier this week I read about a UNITE operation in Clay County. 33 suspects had been charged with felonies for trafficking in drugs. I knew two of the folks on that list. One was a popular girl who rode the bus with me from Oneida to Clay County high. She was pretty, smart, outgoing, popular. Now she was charged with trafficking drugs near a school. Another was a popular athlete while I was in Clay County. He was a football player and a big man on campus.
Last night (Sunday, Dec. 23rd), WYMT broke the news that 125 people in Harlan County were being sought on arrest warrants. All 125 were wanted for drug related crimes. 125 people in a county with just over 13,000 households.Where will the drug wars end? Will they? Perhaps they’ll go on forever, and otherwise good people will continue selling themselves to the devil to make money and get high. Perhaps they’ll finally just kill themselves off with their destructive habits. Maybe that’s what meth is all about.

Whatever the final outcome, I can’t help but look back over the years at the fun and engaging young people I knew whose lives would ultimately be destroyed by drugs. I can’t help but miss these people, though I’m not sure I would have recognized some of them in their final days. And two final questions keep bugging me: why and how? Why did they start down that path? Do folks who start down the path of intense drug use ever come out on top? I frankly can’t think of one affirmative response. That’s self evident to me, why wasn’t it to them? Is it like a vortex where lots of folks play around the edges while only a few get sucked in? I also don't understand how this happens. How did these folks go so far? Wasn’t there someone out there, some mom or dad or aunt or uncle or boyfriend or girlfriend, to step in and say to them “stop!”?? Did their loved ones think they could weather the storm until it was too late? Do they, God help them, stay up nights pondering this very question?

Meanwhile, as you celebrate this Christmas season with your loved ones, consider this comment from the Harlan County Sheriff Marvin Lipfird: "Usually right after Christmas, we get calls about kid’s bikes being stolen, their gifts being taken and taken to local drug dealers and traded and we just decided this Christmas we were trying to eliminate some of those problems."

A footnote: Marvin Lipfird’s primary opponent in the 2006 Sheriff’s race, Alan Harris, was recently arrested on charges of drug trafficking.

Cross Posted at: Cyberhillbilly



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