Margaret Talbot's profile of West Virginia's communities on the front-lines of the opioid crisis is our Sunday Long Read for the week, Talbot travels with a paramedic in Berkeley County, in the far eastern tip of the state's panhandle along I-81, a hour northwest of Washington DC. It's not a poor mountain county by any means, being next to Maryland and Hagerstown, with more than 110,000 people in the county proper.
But it does have the worst overdose rate in the worst state for heroin overdoses in the nation.
Martinsburg, which has a population of seventeen thousand, is a hilly town filled with brick and clapboard row houses. It was founded in 1778, by Adam Stephen, a Revolutionary War general. The town became a depot for the B. & O. Railroad and grew into an industrial center dominated by woollen mills. Interwoven, established in the eighteen-nineties, was the first electric-powered textile plant in the U.S. The company became the largest men’s-sock manufacturer in the world, and at its height, in the nineteen-fifties, it employed three thousand people in Martinsburg. The Interwoven factory whistle could be heard all over town, summoning workers every morning at a quarter to seven. In 1971, when the mill closed, an editorial in the Martinsburg Journal mourned the passing of “what was once this community’s greatest pride.” In 2004, the last woollen mill in town, Royce Hosiery, ceased operations.
It’s simplistic to trace the town’s opioid epidemic directly to the loss of industrial jobs. Nevertheless, many residents I met brought up this history, as part of a larger story of lost purpose that has made the town vulnerable to the opioid onslaught. In 2012, Macy’s opened a distribution center in the Martinsburg area, but, Knowles said, the company has found it difficult to hire longtime residents, because so many fail the required drug test. (The void has been filled, only partially, by people from neighboring states.) Knowles wonders if Procter & Gamble, which is opening a manufacturing plant in the area this fall, will have a similar problem.
The Eastern Panhandle is one of the wealthier parts of a poor state. (The most destitute counties depend on coal mining.) Berkeley County is close enough to D.C. and Baltimore that many residents commute for work. Nevertheless, Martinsburg feels isolated. Several people I met there expressed surprise, or sympathy, when I told them that I live in D.C., or politely said that they’d like to visit the capital one of these days. Like every other county in West Virginia, Berkeley County voted for Donald Trump.
Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin. Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose. I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs. “In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.” There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.” He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”
The Interwoven mill, derelict and grand, still dominates the center of Martinsburg. One corner of it has been turned into a restaurant, but the rest sits empty. Lately, there’s been talk of an ambitious renovation. A police officer named Andrew Garcia has a plan, called Martinsburg Renew, which would turn most of the mill into a rehab facility. Todd Funkhouser, who runs the Berkeley County Historical Society, showed me around one day. “Martinsburg is an industrial town,” he said. “That’s its identity. But what’s the industry now? Maybe it will be drug rehab.”
I know, you're saying "Another story of Trump-voting white junkies who ruined the country for the rest of us?"
I'm starting to think that people voted for Trump in the Rust Belt for the same reason these states have succumbed to smack: they've tried everything else and they're still miserable. Then along comes heroin in the same way Donald Trump came along with the cheap high of outrage and racism. But like heroin, you need more and more outrage and hatred to be effective, and pretty soon you're addicted to it.
When these states -- and Kentucky is one of them, believe me -- crash from the high, it's going to get ugly, violent, and deadly.