Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre investigated prescription drug abuse.
Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre (left) talks with Executive Editor Rob Byers after Eyre won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. (© Kenny Kemp, courtesy Eric Ayre)
On April 10, journalist Eric Eyre got news he never expected: he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
A Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter for eighteen years, Eyre and his family have been members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston, West Virginia, for nearly that long. Eyre’s award comes with a cash prize, but, more importantly, huge recognition. Eyre has won numerous awards for his work before, but nothing compares to the Pulitzer.
“It’s a whirlwind that still hasn’t fully sunk in, and it’s not something we expected or that I expected,” Eyre said. “It’s different than other awards because it’s something everybody recognizes.” He said he has been receiving frequent requests from media outlets to interview him since the award became public.
In a series of articles that covered some three years of work, Eyre explored the huge volume of prescription drugs, particularly the painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone, that flooded into West Virginia from 2007 to 2012. Those drugs fueled a flood of addiction that hit especially hard in some of the state’s poorest areas. Through requests to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Eyre and the newspaper got numbers to back up what many already suspected, that hundreds of millions of pills were being sold by pharmaceutical wholesalers to pharmacies across West Virginia.
“We learned that 780 million pills were shipped to the state in six years,” Eyre said. “That’s 430 pills a person.”
Moreover, the drugs were more likely to be going to poorer counties where coal mining jobs have dried up in recent years; in some cases, counties with relatively few people were receiving ten times as many pills as more affluent counties nearby. Another disturbing finding was that the average strength of the pills increased dramatically over the six years Eyre reported on. The DEA, which oversees pharmaceuticals, has often been short of people and leadership in the state, Eyre said, while drug wholesalers say it’s not their responsibility to regulate how many drugs are being sold.
For the 116-member congregation in Charleston, it’s been exciting to see one of their own recognized at such a high level. “We’re really excited. People have been talking about it, and they were excited enough to call me about it on my day off to say: ‘Ah! Did you hear about Eric?’” said Kayla Parker, minister of the Charleston congregation*.
Parker said Eyre’s award also intersects with values the congregation holds. UU Charleston hosts several Narcotics Anonymous groups in its building. “Addiction is a huge problem everywhere and especially in West Virginia,” Parker said. “It affects most of us in the congregation. The work [Eyre] did is work people are proud of.”
Moreover, Eyre’s work on this issue is at the intersection of government, business, and people, and gives a worrying view about not just West Virginia but everywhere, Parker said. “Lack of corporate responsibility is a recurring theme in West Virginia,” Parker said. “The rest of the country has sort of turned away from West Virginia and Appalachia in general, but we’re a warning about what can happen.”
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story identified the minister of the Charleston congregation as “the Rev. Kayla Parker,” although Parker—a contract minister—has not yet been ordained. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
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The Rev. Christian Schmidt is senior co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley.