Somehow West Virginia Uses the Most Mind-Altering Drugs and Alaska Uses the Least

Apparently, West Virginia uses the most mood-altering drugs, and Alaska uses the least.

by Mike Pearl
Apr 2 2015, 4:00am

Screencap from Sean Dunne's 'Oxyana'

State of the States" series of reports, Gallup just released a new poll on mood-altering drugs. In it, high rates of reliance on drugs are linked to low rankings in Gallup's 2014 Well-Being Index, an attempt to measure happiness in each state.

According to the survey, West Virginia is apparently the most drugged and most miserable, with nearly one third of residents polled saying that they took mood-altering drugs "almost daily." Alaska, meanwhile, is the happiest state, and the least inclined to get fucked up regularly, with 13.9 percent of residents reporting daily drug use.

Other states with high rates include Rhode Island, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi. States at the bottom of the list are Wyoming, California, Illinois, North Dakota, New Jersey and Colorado. Alaska, California, and Colorado seem to stand out as oddballs on that list because, well, those states love smoking weed. Nationally, 18.9 percent of survey respondents reported near-daily use of mood-altering drugs.

But the poll isn't concerned with demonstrating where drug use as a whole is the highest. Instead, it looks at where people self-reported using "mood-altering drugs"—a catchall term defined however the respondent chooses. So it could mean "chill out after finals" drugs, but it could also mean "get my mind off my cancer diagnosis" drugs or "make the voices stop yelling at me" drugs.

The correlation between mood-altering drug use and happiness isn't a perfect one. Rhode Island is the second-highest in terms of drug reliance, but at 38th in "Well Being." That state has very little in common with West Virginia, but there are a few similarities, including relatively old populations and low population growth.

But contrasting West Virginia with Alaska is more compelling than comparing it to Rhode Island. One obvious contrast between West Virginia and Alaska is that Alaska's economy is bolstered by oil, while West Virginia's signature natural resource, coal, has become increasingly unpopular. (Thanks, Obama.) And even though the Alaskan economy has been lackluster lately, Alaskans have some of the highest household incomes in the nation, while West Virginians have some of the lowest.

Gallup's findings fit with the stereotype that people use a ton of drugs in West Virginia. Documentarian Sean Dunne's 2013 Oxyana offered a snapshot of life in a town overrun with opiate addiction. One of the film's interviewees went so far as to say that residents of Oceana, West Virginia, either work in the coal mines or are involved in the drug trade.

The film alienated some residents however, with one representative telling Metro News that "Mr. Dunne selected his subjects for the film very carefully, and his agenda has been to portray Oceana in the worst possible light." She went on to admit that "there is a drug problem in Central Appalachia with prescription drugs" but claimed that Dunne had "thrown the baby out with the bathwater."

The Gallup report can be seen as yet one more sign that West Virginia's drug problem needs attention. According to Dunne's documentary, the state boasts the highest rate of deaths from drug overdoses. To make matters worse, there are no good samaritan laws in place to protect other drug users from prosecution if they try to rescue their overdosing friends.

One bit of good news: The state just approved the use of naloxone, the opiate "antidote," in an attempt to curb fatal overdoses. Still, since the Gallup poll is about mood-altering drugs in general, not just opiates, maybe West Virginia could benefit from the legalization of a drug that's less apt to kill people.

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