Sheriff at WVa opioid trial worried about future generations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia sheriff testified Thursday during a landmark trial against three large opioid distributors that he is worried the scourge of the pain pill epidemic will remain a very real part of life.

“It’s long from being over,” Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle said. “I fear for what comes for my grandchildren and the next generation. This is not about me. I’m an old guy. I’m done. What comes down the road, that’s what I worry about.”

A civil lawsuit filed by Cabell County and the city of Huntington accuses drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. of fueling the U.S. crisis.

The plaintiffs argue that the companies created a “public nuisance” by flooding the area with tens of millions of opioid doses over eight years and ignoring the signs that the small community along the Ohio River was being ravaged by addiction.

The companies, in turn, say poor communication and pill quotas set by federal agents are to blame, along with a rise in prescriptions written by doctors.

On Wednesday, former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigator James Rafalski testified that for more than a decade, the distributors failed to properly flag suspiciously large pain pill orders to the DEA.

Prior to becoming sheriff in 2017, Zerkle was the police chief in nearby Milton for two years and before that had a long career with the West Virginia State Police in Huntington.

Testifying for the plaintiffs, Zerkle said the local jail system became overwhelmed as drug users turned to heroin-related crimes. He described the sheriff’s departments staff and resources becoming strained due in part to courtroom appearances and serving on an opioid drug task force, The Herald-Dispatch reported.

He said the county since 2017 has had a jail bill deficit of about $3.3 million. To offset costs, detainees with petty property crimes were placed on home confinement.

AmerisourceBergen attorney Gretchen Callas said Zerkle ignored methamphetamine abuse that is prevalent in West Virginia and that the distributor’s role in the closed drug system could not be connected to heroin abuse.

Zerkle, who also is the county’s tax collector, said people are moving out. He said 350 homes in Huntington alone were unable to be sold on the county courthouse steps after the owners fell behind on taxes, so the state of West Virginia took them over.

“We’ve got this publicity of being the opioid epicenter,” he said. “This ain’t good publicity. This is bad. If you were a major company, would you want to come (here) knowing what you look at?”

West Virginia for years has led the nation in the rate of drug overdose deaths. About 7,200 residents died with at least one opiate in their system between 2001 and 2015, according to a state drug overdose death report. A majority of them were age 35 to 54.

Over the past decade there has been large mobilization efforts in community recovery programs. Dr. Lyn M. O’Connell, associate director of addiction sciences at Marshall Health, testified about preventative care and education programs along with treatment facilities for drug users and mental health training for first responders.

Similar lawsuits have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements, but this is the first time allegations have wound up at federal trial. The result could have huge effects on hundreds of similar lawsuits that have been filed across the country.