How big is the opioid crisis in West Virginia? Here’s an economic answer: If you took all of the money that Congress recently approved to fight the opioid epidemic across the entire nation — $6 billion — and poured it into West Virginia, it still wouldn’t plug the hole opioids are creating in the state’s economy.

According to a January study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., the cost of the opioid crisis on the West Virginia economy — spending on criminal justice, health care, treatment for substance abuse; the lost wages and productivity — amounts to an astonishing $8.8 billion per year.

To put this into perspective, this is equivalent of 12 percent of the state’s $73 billion gross domestic product in 2016. The 12 percent figure was more than twice that of any other state. The economic burden works out to $4,793 per West Virginian, the most of any state. Marylanders bore the next-highest burden, at $3,366 per person.

Worse, West Virginia is among the states least-capable of bearing this economic burden. The state ranks 40th in GDP and 48th in per capita income. West Virginia ranks third nationally in percentage of residents who receive food stamps, at 20 percent of the state’s 1.8 million residents.

The enormity of the economic cost of the opioid crisis from the AEI study even surprised state officials accustomed to dealing with the ravages of the epidemic. “It seems we’ve been grossly underestimating the economic impact,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s public health commissioner, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The human cost of the epidemic on West Virginians is better-known, if no less staggering. In 2016, 881 West Virginians died of opioid overdoses, which was a record high. A heartbreaking 5 percent of all babies born in the state in 2016 were exposed to addictive substances during their mothers’ pregnancies. The state had the nation’s highest opioid-related death rate in 2016, at 52 per 100,000 residents.

The epidemic is so widespread that it has touched almost every family at ground level. The AEI study pulls back to show a high-altitude view of charred terrain that resembles a battlefield in terms of lives lost and sheer waste of economic resources.

The war metaphor is becoming increasingly apt because of the deadly impact opioids have made in a relatively short period of time, much like a war. Literally, from the period of the 1990s to today, opioid addiction has removed a cohort of West Virginians from the state’s economy, as well as robbing them of life.

The impact is not unlike the generation of young men Germany and France lost in World War I from 1914 to 1918. In Germany, 13 percent of the young men who fought were killed; in France, it was 17 percent.

There should no longer be any doubt: This is a war. Lives are being lost. And any government’s prime objective is to keep its citizens safe.

President Trump’s declared opioid emergency is a nice start, but it’s not enough. The $6 billion Congress has allocated is better, but still not enough. The White House budget, released Monday, proposes $17 billion to fight the crisis, but the president’s budget is traditionally little more than a talking point.

Earlier this month, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said that the state doesn’t have enough money to fight the epidemic in all 55 counties. This is a tough but critical step. The first part of fixing a problem is acknowledging you have one. Justice said the state will spend $10 million and partner with West Virginia University to come up with a model for fighting the epidemic that will then be tested in two counties. If it works, it can be rolled out statewide.

Justice campaigned on bringing employment to West Virginia. The best way for him to start is by killing the thing that’s destroying the state’s workforce and draining its scant resources.

Frank Ahrens, a West Virginia native and WVU graduate, is a public relations executive in Washington D.C. He was a Washington Post journalist for 18 years and is the author of “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.” Contact him at


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