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Seniors in Appalachia face drug charges

Police say they sold medicine to young addicts

PRESTONSBURG, Ky. -- Dottie Neeley, 87, was fingerprinted, photographed, and thrown in jail.

The woman -- who spent two days in the jail after her arrest last December -- is among a growing number of Kentucky senior citizens charged in a crackdown on a crime that authorities say is rampant in Appalachia: Elderly people reselling their painkillers and other medications to addicts.

''When a person is on Social Security, drawing $500 a month, and they can sell their pain pills for $10 apiece, they'll take half of them for themselves and sell the other half to pay their electric bills or buy groceries," Floyd County jailer Roger Webb said.

Since April 2004, Operation UNITE, a Kentucky antidrug task force created largely in response to rampant abuse of the powerful and sometimes lethal painkiller OxyContin, has charged more than 40 people age 60 or older with selling primarily prescription drugs in the mountains.

''It used to be a rare occasion to have an elderly inmate," Webb said. ''Five years ago, it was a rarity."

Local jails are having to bear the increased cost of caring for old and often sickly inmates.

''You've got to give them more attention," Webb said. ''It's putting a strain on my deputies. We're understaffed anyway. You've got to get them doctors, and meet their medical needs."

Researchers suspect the problem is not limited to Appalachia.

Elderly people ''may be looking for a way to bring in a little extra money," said Erin Artigiani, deputy director of the University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research. ''We haven't heard a lot about senior citizens being a source of those drugs. We know college students do this. It's not much a stretch to think that seniors could do it, too."

Anita Cornett, a physician in Hyden, said one of her patients, a reformed drug addict, told her that he bought all his drugs not from a known dealer, but from elderly people.

Cornett said she conducts random drug screenings to make sure her patients are taking their prescription drugs instead of selling them. In addition, staffers routinely call patients and ask them to bring their prescription bottles in so that the pills can be counted.

The Rev. Doug Abner, pastor of Community Church in Manchester and an antidrug activist, said senior citizens may not understand the seriousness of selling prescription drugs.

''They justify it because they're having a hard time financially," he said. ''Left to ourselves, we can justify anything, but they're really part of the problem."

However, Dan Smoot, a former state police drug detective who heads the task force, said the elderly people being charged are not necessarily struggling to put food on the table.

''Most of the elderly we arrest are merely continuing a family tradition," he said. ''It has been part of their culture for a long time."

Neeley, who uses an oxygen tank, and was arrested along with her son and his girlfriend, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of trafficking in prescription drugs and marijuana.

However, a prosecutor has agreed not to oppose ''shock probation" if Neeley enters a guilty plea at her next court appearance, Dec. 29. Under shock probation, a defendant who is unlikely to repeat the crime is released after getting a brief taste of life behind bars.

Her attorney, Terry Jacobs, said the plea bargain would be a gamble because the judge could decide not to grant her shock probation, and ''six months is a death sentence for her."

In a telephone interview, Neeley denied selling drugs. She said she has emphysema and asthma and sometimes uses a wheelchair. Neeley said she was shocked when police arrived to arrest her and made the 4-foot-8, 120-pound woman walk from her house to a cruiser.

''I had to hold my hands up all the way," she said. ''They wouldn't let me hold them down."

Her lawyer declined to discuss specifics of the charges.

But he said, ''You've got a depressed economy. You've got an opportunity for these folks to make money. If you're seeing a disproportionate number of elderly, it's because they are the people who are going to be prescribed most of the drugs."

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