Kentucky’s Drug and Alcohol Problems

Kentucky’s drug and alcohol problems are on the rise. Kentucky was the birthplace of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. They were in fact born within 100 miles of each other. A Border State during the Civil War, Kentucky did not officially outlaw slavery until December 18, 1865.

About Kentucky, Lincoln said, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” He is also noted as saying, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

With its dramatic history, the “Bluegrass State” did not evade the influx of drugs over the 20th century nor its citizens’ struggles with substance abuse and addiction.

Kentucky’s History

The first U.S. state west of the Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky was granted statehood in 1792. Early settlers of Kentucky, such as Daniel Boone, were known for their tenacity and fearlessness in the face of adversity.

During the Civil War, Kentucky was officially a neutral state. However, approximately 100,000 troops of Kentucky citizens fought for the North while 40,000 troops fought for the South. The phrase “brother against brother” was a harsh reality in Kentucky.

On a more positive note, the state is also known for the legendary Kentucky Derby and its raising of thoroughbred horses. Kentucky produces a variety of livestock and crops including tobacco and wheat. Vehicle parts and coal are counted amongst its many industries.

While the population of Kentucky has gone up fairly steadily over the decades, there was a large dip around World War II. This may be due, in part, to the fact that Kentucky residents have historically given theirs all during wartime.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Kentucky went from about 2.15 million people in 1900 to almost 4.4 million by 2013. The state’s unemployment rates may be a reason behind its relatively slow population increase. Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Kentucky unemployment rates have been higher than the national average almost every single month since 1997. Part of this is attributed to the consistent cutting of coal-related jobs over the years.

As if to illustrate the point, in the famous film Coal Miner’s Daughter, about the life of country music legend Loretta Lynn, a character is noted as saying: “If you’re born in Kentucky you’ve got three choices: coal mine, moonshine or move it on down the line.”

Early Drug Problems in Kentucky

Kentucky bourbon is famous the world over. Prohibition in the 1920’s attempted to shut down distilleries and it succeeded in wiping out 10 of the 17 Kentucky whiskey and bourbon manufacturers in business prior to Prohibition.

Right at the beginning of Prohibition, Kentucky distilleries encountered problems. For example, when the law went into effect, whiskey was stolen at gunpoint from the James E. Pepper Distillery. As time wore on, Kentucky’s predominant bootleggers became more and more violent, clashing with police and rival bootleggers in their attempts to run illegal booze throughout the country.

With distilleries back in business after Prohibition, Kentucky was once again known for bourbon and other whiskeys. Later on, in 1989, Kentucky became known for producing marijuana as well. In 1982, Kentucky was listed among the top five marijuana producing states and a 1990 report states that it was the second largest marijuana producing state in the nation.

The remote Appalachian Mountains that aided marijuana growers in the 80’s and 90’s also became home to meth labs in the early 2000’s. By 2011, Kentucky was listed as the number 3 state in America for methamphetamine production.

The Drug Trade in Kentucky

Kentucky’s drug problems have evolved over the years. They have gone from alcohol to methamphetamine to prescription pain pills. More recently there has been a spike in heroin use and death from a heroin overdose in Kentucky.

According to a 2012/2013 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the following are the most commonly abused drugs in Kentucky, highest to lowest:

  1. Alcohol
  2. Marijuana
  3. Prescription painkillers
  4. Cocaine

There are no heroin use statistics noted in the SAMHSA report. Other statistics, however, indicate that heroin has become a huge problem in Kentucky, echoing what is becoming a nationwide problem. In particular, prescription painkiller (opioid) addiction and heroin use have been steadily fueling one another over the last few years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that there was a 55% jump in heroin-related deaths nationally between 2000 and 2010. Statistics from The Courier-Journal in Kentucky show this leap clearly. Heroin overdose deaths in Kentucky went from 22 in 2011 to 143 in 2012.

According to news reports, illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine are coming into northern Kentucky from Mexican cartel connections in Chicago, Detroit, and Cincinnati, and spread throughout the state from there.

Youth Drug Problems in Kentucky

Young people in Kentucky are affected by drug and alcohol abuse, although both SAMHSA and CDC statistics show that there is a much larger percentage of adults abusing drugs and alcohol than children and teens. For example, the percentage of people actively using illicit drugs according to a 2011/2012 SAMHSA survey shows that about 8% of teens aged 12 through 17 are using, while around 19% of young adults between 18 through 25 are abusing illicit substances. That’s an 11% spike between age groups.

According to a 2013 survey done by the CDC, the following are the drugs of choice for young people in Kentucky:

  1. Alcohol
  2. Marijuana
  3. Prescription drugs (painkillers, stimulants, or anti-anxiety drugs)
  4. Inhalants
  5. Cocaine
  6. Ecstasy (MDMA)
  7. Methamphetamine

Heroin has so recently become a problem that neither the CDC nor SAMHSA keeps statistics on it for Kentucky youth at this time. However, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a growing number of youth who were once using prescription opioids have switched to heroin to get their fix. Kentucky law enforcement officials have stated that they started seeing more heroin use back in 2010, but it was only in 2014 that heroin use among teens and adults increased dramatically.

Drug & Alcohol Abuse in Today’s Kentucky

Kentucky is the whiskey capital of the U.S., contributing to a consistent alcohol abuse problem within the state. But this isn’t the only drug made within Kentucky’s borders. Marijuana growing operations are still an issue, along with methamphetamine production. Kentucky is faced with the newer problem of heroin abuse.

The year 2014 saw more babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This can occur when a pregnant woman uses opiates of any kind (methadone, heroin, hydrocodone, oxycodone, buprenorphine, etc.) during pregnancy. The newborn is dependent upon the drug the mother used while pregnant.

Children with NAS suffer from withdrawal symptoms and must be weaned off opiates while in the hospital; many end up in intensive care. According to a 2013 Medicaid survey, there were 690 hospitalizations for NAS in infants in Kentucky in 2013, up from the 621 infant hospitalizations in 2012.

While heroin abuse isn’t rampant throughout the state, northern and eastern Kentucky are seeing increasing numbers in heroin usage. Lawmakers throughout the state are working to provide heroin overdose prevention kits containing a drug called Narcan (naloxone) to families of heroin addicts. This is the same drug hospitals and paramedics administer in order to counteract a heroin (opiate) overdose. The idea is to save the life of an addict so that he or she can live to get treatment.

Solutions for a Drug-Free & Prosperous Kentucky

The Kentucky government is fighting the addiction problem by cracking down on drug growers and dealers. They are working to pass out kits so that heroin users don’t die. However, there is much more to be done to create a drug-free and truly prosperous Kentucky. Here are a few solutions you can use to help your friends and communities:

1. Educate our youth about drugs and alcohol.

Statistics show that real, truthful drug education that addresses what drugs are and how they affect the body, mind, and spirit can truly help kids refrain from using drugs and alcohol. Prevention is the first line of defense and the ultimate offense.

2. Talk with local schools and teachers about implementing drug education.

There are great online resources such as:


You can also volunteer to speak at schools or youth groups or contact any of the above organizations for information on getting speakers to your school district or community.

3. Write to your senator, congressman or other government representative.

When it comes to government and legislation, you have a voice. Write to your local or state representative and express your concerns about drug addiction and drug use in your state. There are programs like drug courts which send addicted criminals to rehab instead of into the revolving door of the jail. You can also bring up drug education and the availability of local rehab facilities to your government representative.

4. Volunteer in your community.

Many people turn to drugs or alcohol in moments of despair and hardship. By working in your community, such as schools, church groups, afterschool programs and charities, you have the opportunity to help those around you rise up out of their struggles and reach for a better life.

5. Get drug free.

If you are abusing drugs or alcohol or you know someone who is addicted, it’s important to get help and become drug-free. The first step to creating a clean community is to become clean yourself. Contact an addiction specialist in order to get options.

Drug and alcohol addiction is a nationwide problem. You can take steps to create a drug-free community, a better present and a promising future for the great state of Kentucky.


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