Dopesick - Beth Macy


Two years into a twenty-three-year prison sentence, on a day pushing 100 degrees, Ronnie Jones had his first visitor. I’d spent almost a year listening to police and prosecutors describe Jones, imprisoned for armed heroin distribution, as a predator. After three months of requests, I walked along the manicured entranceway of Hazelton Federal Correctional Institution on the outskirts of Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. The air was so thick that the flags framing the concrete-block structure hung there drooping, as still as the razor wire that scalloped the roofs.

In the state’s northeastern crook, bordering Pennsylvania to the north and Maryland to the east, Preston County had once been dominated by strip-mining. But by the mid-2000s, most of the mines had shut down, and the prison had taken over as the county’s largest employer, with eight hundred guards and staff.

My August 2016 interview had taken several weeks to arrange with the Bureau of Prisons pecking order in Washington, D.C., but first I had to navigate weeks of curt back-and-forth with Jones, over the prison’s monitored email, to get his OK. “Exactly who have you spoken to as of today that was involved with my case?” he wanted to know. What personal information about him did I intend to use?

Jones agreed to let me visit, finally, because he wanted his daughters, in kindergarten and first grade when their dad was arrested in June 2013, to understand “there’s a different side of me,” as he put it. The last they’d seen him, a week before his arrest, he had delivered birthday cupcakes to their school.

I thought of the “tsunami of misery” Jones had first unleashed in Woodstock, Virginia, as his prosecutor put it, before it fanned out in waves over the northwestern region of the state and into some of Washington’s western bedroom communities in 2012 and 2013. In just a few months’ time, Jones was presiding over the largest heroin ring in the region, transforming a handful of users into hundreds.

As I made my way to the prison, I calculated the human toll, the hundreds of addicted people who ended up dopesick when their heroin supply was suddenly cut by Jones’s arrest: throwing up and sweating and shitting their pants. When Jones was jailed in 2013, many of the newly addicted Woodstock users began carpooling to the nearest big cities—Baltimore, Washington, and even Martinsburg, West Virginia, aka Little Baltimore—to score drugs, converging on known heroin hot spots and playing drug-dealer Russian roulette.

I didn’t yet know that a single batch of heroin was about to land in Huntington, West Virginia, four hours west of Jones’s cell, that would halt the breathing of twenty-six people in a single day, before the week was out. Those overdoses were fueled by the latest synthetic opioid, carfentanil, imported from China with a stroke on a computer keyboard. Carfentanil is an elephant sedative one hundred times stronger than fentanyl, which is twenty-five to fifty times stronger than heroin. For the fifth year in a row, the state of West Virginia’s indigent burial-assistance program was about to exhaust its funds from interring opioid-overdose victims.

Similar surges were happening across the country, from Florida to Sacramento to Barre, Vermont. Every person I interviewed that summer, from treatment providers to parents of the addicted to the judges who were sending the addicted to prison or jail, was growing more burdened by the day. The enormity of America’s drug problem was finally dawning on them and on the rest of us—two decades after the opioid epidemic first took root. (Although the word “opiate” historically refers to drugs derived from the opium poppy and “opioid” to chemical versions, the now more widely accepted term “opioid” is used in this book for both forms of painkillers.)

Drug overdose had already taken the lives of 300,000 Americans over the past fifteen years, and experts now predicted that 300,000 more would die in only the next five. It is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of fifty, killing more people than guns or car accidents, at a rate higher than the HIV epidemic at its peak.

The rate of casualties is so unprecedented that it’s almost impossible to look at the total number dead—and at the doctors and mothers and teachers and foster parents who survive them—and not wonder why the nation’s response has been so slow in coming and so impotently executed when it finally did.

Ronnie Jones had run one of the largest drug rings in the mid-Atlantic United States, a region with some of