Alan Maimon on the origins of the opioid epidemic, lessons learned from

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The South has been hit hard over the last few decades by the opioid epidemic. 20 years ago, governments weren’t prepared. Police focused on shutting down marijuana growth, not the rapid spread of prescription drugs. Ground Zero for the spread of drugs like oxycontin may have been coal country in Eastern Kentucky. In his new book “Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning,” Alan Maimon chronicles the spread of the opioid epidemic, as well as environmental and economic disasters. The country seems obsessed with figuring out what Appalachia means for the rest of America. Maimon’s book may be the most authoritative examination of the subject out there.

Learn more at www.AlanMaimon.com.

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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

John Hammontree: This isn’t a uniquely Southern problem, this is an American one, but the South has been hit hard over the last couple of decades by the opioid epidemic. Some of us have lost loved ones. Many of us know somebody who was directly affected. And most of us live in communities that have struggled to respond to this crisis. 20 years ago, governments weren’t prepared. Police were still focused on shutting down the marijuana industry, not the rapid spread of prescription drugs. And ground zero for the spread of drugs like OxyContin may have been coal country in eastern Kentucky. Companies like Purdue Pharma marketed opioids as a wonder drug that could help coal miners and other laborers deal with the issues of chronic physical pain. This part of the country was already underserved by medical care, and things would only get worse. And Alan Maimon was on the ground reporting in Hazard, Kentucky in the early 2000s when he attended one of the first press conferences in the country about opioid abuse.

As a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, he chronicled a series of events that would shape the country, not just the region: environmental disasters unemployment, drug addiction, government corruption. Today on the Reckon Interview, Alan joins us to discuss his new book “Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning.” I just love that name. Alan offers a strong picture of a region that’s been the subject of countless books and thought pieces in recent years. Our country seems obsessed with figuring out what Appalachia might mean for the rest of America. And I think Allen’s book is maybe the best, most even-handed examination of the subject out there. And it also provides us with lessons of resiliency that we can apply in our own states. So let’s go ahead and get started on this week’s episode of The Reckon Interview. Alan Maimon, thanks for coming on the Reckon Interview.

Alan Maimon: Great to be with you, John. Thanks for having me.

John Hammontree: Your new book is out now. It is called “Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning.” And of course, I already love the name with with Reckon in the title. You lived in eastern Kentucky, the Appalachian region of Kentucky, for about five years starting in 2000. What drew you to that part of the country — you’re not from there originally — and what led you to write the book, you know, some 15 years later?

Alan Maimon: Prior to arriving in eastern Kentucky, as the eastern Kentucky reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper, I had been working as a journalist in Europe for several years, most recently as a news assistant in the Berlin, Germany bureau of The New York Times. And the time came when I felt like I wanted to return home. Of course, home by this point was a little bit of an abstract concept for me. And I kind of got the idea that it would be interesting to continue my career in a part of the United States that I had no previous knowledge of or experience with, and a place that would challenge me in the same way that working as a reporter in a foreign country had challenged me. As fate would have it right around the time I was formulating this idea, I saw an ad for an opening in the Hazard, Kentucky bureau of the Louisville Courier-Journal and I did a little research on this on this bureau. It turned out to be something of a legendary and sable bureau that had done a lot of great reporting for for many years about the coal industry in particular. And I thought you know what ,this is fits the bill, I’m going to apply for this job and ended up getting it and then arrived in Hazard Kentucky a few days before Christmas in the year 2000. Right, right around the time that hanging chads were being counted and tallied in Florida. And the question was, was being given to George W. Bush just to orientate listeners as to what was going on at that very moment. But yeah, from Christmas 2000 to the beginning of 2006, I was the Eastern Kentucky reporter for the Louisville paper covering approximately 25 or 30 counties throughout that region.

John Hammontree: I am guilty as a Southern journalist of sometimes giving grief to quote unquote, parachute reporters coming in from other parts of the country. And you address that in your book, you know, you kind of talk about when you first arrived in Hazzard people kind of looking at you warily and saying you know, do us right, you know, make sure that people get the story right. And you know, I do want to point out for our listeners, to me, there’s a difference between a New York Times reporter dropping in for a weekend of coverage versus you know, you being embedded in the community for years as a member of the Louisville Courier-Journal staff. What was it like when you first got to to Hazard and eastern Kentucky? You were covering a very wide range of territory there.

Alan Maimon: The learning curve was was steep. It took a lot of work to learn about the people and the places and and most importantly, the issues that were really starting to come to a head right around that time. I had been in eastern Kentucky literally three weeks when a press release came across my fax machine at my home office and Hazard announcing a major press conference the following day in Lexington, Kentucky. I went to Lexington the following day and that was, turned out to be the first major public announcement anywhere of this prescription drug that we have all come to know called Oxycontin. This was the first time that anybody had really heard about what this drug was doing to, especially communities in Eastern Kentucky. A lot was happening at that time. And that just made the learning curve that much steeper. There were some devastating environmental catastrophes that occurred right around the time that I arrived there, including a 350 million gallon slurp hole slurry spill in one of the counties that I covered that absolutely inundated a small town.

And as we sit here now in 2021, the lingering effects of that incident and others like it continue to impact water quality, just overall environmental, the environmental safety of the region. So it was, as I say in the book at times, whiplash inducing, because I was in a new place, trying to learn about the places and the people while at the same time just being confronted with incredibly heartbreaking and difficult stories to cover. And I wanted to try to cover those stories with the most nuance possible.

To answer your question about why I decided to write the book, one of the reasons was, as I also say, in the book, it’s difficult to tell the story have a place in 500 word chunks, or 1000 word chunks, I felt like there was a need to connect a lot of the dots, individual dots that I had placed on the map while I was there. I felt that for, just to put them all into a greater context, writing this book would help me do that. I think it’s also…

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