Nearly one in 10 babies were born addicted to drugs last year in southern Ohio’s Scioto County. Rehab admissions for prescription painkiller addictions were five times the national average. In a rare step, the health commissioner declared a public health emergency, something usually reserved for disease outbreaks.


The culprits putting the rural county at the forefront of a burgeoning national problem are not only the people abusing the painkillers, officials say. They blame at least eight area “pill mills” – clinics or doctors that dole out prescription medications like OxyContin with little discretion. At least two health care providers are facing criminal charges.

“I would describe it as if a pharmaceutical atomic bomb went off,” said Lisa Roberts, a nurse for the health department in Portsmouth, an Ohio River city of about 20,000 with falling population and high unemployment.

Health officials say nine of every 10 fatal drug overdoses in Scioto (pronounced sy-OH’-toh) County are caused by prescription drugs. Of those drug deaths, nearly two-thirds of the individuals did not have prescriptions, meaning they bought the drugs illegally or got them from friends or family.

At least 117 people died of overdoses in the county between 2000 and 2008. Pictures of the dead fill a storefront in downtown Portsmouth that a grieving mother converted to a memorial to the epidemic.

Among them is a photograph of Leslie Dawn Cooper, who struggled with her addictions for years before dying at age 34 of an overdose of oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin, on Oct. 3, 2009. The night before, she paid $250 in cash for the prescription at an alleged pill mill in Portsmouth, then took it to a pharmacy in Columbus, 85 miles away, because no local pharmacist would fill it.

On Cooper’s way home she called her mother, Barbara Howard, and said she was going to church.

“I said, ‘OK, I love you, and I’ll talk to you later,'” her mother said. “I got the call the next morning at 8 a.m. that she was dead.”

In January, Harold Fletcher, the pharmacist who filled Cooper’s prescription, goes on trial on charges of illegally disbursing prescription painkillers, money laundering and filing false tax returns. His attorney calls the indictment overkill and says the government can’t prove its case.