WELCH, W.Va. — In this once prosperous West Virginia coal town of 1,900 people, residents say it’s not just the decades-long demise of mining that hurt the community — it’s the scourge of drug use that came with it.

Here, almost everyone knows someone who became addicted. And the Appalachian town is fighting back by suing some of the biggest U.S. drug distributors, hoping to make them pay for the damage done by addiction. Lawyers say growing pushback by communities, many in West Virginia, could ultimately rival the scope of litigation against tobacco companies.

As coal workers lost jobs and faced few employment options, opioid addiction rose. In 2015, federal figures show, West Virginia had the nation’s highest rate of overdose deaths from opioids, a class of narcotics that includes heroin but also pain relievers such as oxycodone legally available by prescription. In 2015 and 2016, the state had 1,500 drug overdoses — at least 32 of them in McDowell County, whose seat is Welch.

“We just feel now is maybe the time to attack these drug companies to make them responsible for what they’re sending out,” said Welch Mayor Reba Honacker, who had retired from her career as a florist before her election.

In February, she sued five of the nation’s largest prescription drug distributors on behalf of her city, arguing their opioids saturated the community at a heavy price in added emergency, rehabilitation, police, court and jail services.

“Opioids, once a niche drug, are now the most prescribed class of drugs — more than blood pressure, cholesterol or anxiety drugs,” the lawsuit says, noting drug companies’ billions in annual revenue.

Honacker’s attorney Harry Bell said a Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation last year shows opioid shipments to West Virginia clearly exceeded need — more than 400 pills for each of the state’s 1.8 million people over six years.

“I suspect there are numerous communities which have drug problems in this country with opioids,” Bell said. “But how many of those communities are … victims of a true massive dumping of prescription opioids in numbers that have no relation to reality?”

Since that report, 11 West Virginia municipalities — including Kanawha County, where the capital, Charleston, is located — have filed or announced lawsuits.

McDowell County Sheriff Martin West said the attorney general’s office advised criminal charges weren’t possible. The county sued in federal court instead.

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