The face of a drug dealer can look like a smiling 64-year-old country woman.
Like Linda Sue Cheek, for instance. Cheek, a former Pulaski County physician, is on her way to prison to serve 33 months for her conviction in February on 172 counts of improperly prescribing controlled drugs from her now-closed Dublin medical practice.
Incongruent though that image may be with the street dealers who dominate news of the illicit drug trade, Cheek is no anomaly. Federal prosecutors say doctors are the main source of a prescription drug abuse epidemic that for decades has been eating away at Southwest Virginia’s rugged mountain communities like a degenerative disease left unchecked.
Which, in a sense, is what it is.
Cheek’s prosecution was one law enforcement battle in a broader strategy to fight, as U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy put it after Cheek’s sentencing Tuesday, “what we now think is a full-fledged public health crisis.”
The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia thinks so, that is, as do responsible health care providers, uncorrupted law enforcement officials and community leaders in far Southwest.
All came together a couple of years ago to form One Care, a nonprofit trying to cut the Gordian knot of drug addiction — an illness, a crime, a social pathology and an economic millstone that hobbles efforts to bring new jobs and opportunity to a region of high poverty and low expectations.
Cheek maintains she was only trying to help people suffering chronic pain. The judge gave that some credence when imposing sentence.
But Heaphy said the former doctor, who had lost her federal permit to prescribe controlled drugs after a 2008 health care fraud conviction, wrote 900 prescriptions over one six-day period in 2010.
Doctors who overprescribe are the major source of opiates that are killing people, prosecutors and community service providers agree.
Closing Cheek down might slow the supply, but not the demand for opioids in a region in desperate need of more drug prevention and treatment programs.
It’s a need state policymakers can too easily ignore in a region the rest of Virginia easily forgets.
In a phone interview after Cheek’s sentencing, the executive director of the Cumberland Mountain Community Services Board, Ron Allen, glumly predicted her conviction “will help temporarily. But someone will fill the void.”
His board serves Buchanan, Russell and Tazewell counties, “the epicenter for the Oxycontin epidemic some years ago. We have made some inroads.
“But when you stop one, another just appears.
“We have no support to help these people, when they want help. … State funds are almost nonexistent.