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Oceana residents blast drug documentary, say it is 'time for a change'

Lawrence Pierce
Minister Randall Topping of Turkey Creek Baptist Church addresses the panel at a town meeting in Oceana Friday night to address prescription drugs.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Speaker after speaker at an Oceana town hall Friday night gave the same message: prescription drugs are a community problem that will require a community solution.

"The last 10 years I went to way too many funerals of kids I taught," said Larry Mathis, an Oceana resident, speaking through tears. "Now it's time for a change."

Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Nick Rahall, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, state legislators and federal and state law enforcement officials spoke to about 200 people at Oceana Middle School in response to a forthcoming documentary, "Oxyana," which paints a picture of widespread prescription drug abuse and despair in Oceana.

Nobody denied that there is a drug problem, but the film's director, Sean Dunne, was heaped with scorn and derision for painting a one-sided pessimistic picture of a town that residents said is no different than any other.

"Mr. Dunne spent three weeks filming and he used those three weeks to try to define our town," said D.J. Morgan, a local lawyer and the organizer of the town hall. "Today we start to define ourselves on our own terms."

Rep. Rahall accused Dunne of coming in from his "ivory tower" in New York and doing a hatchet job on the community.

Very few have seen the film, which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and has not been widely released. But some of the statements in the trailer -- that Oceana is the scariest place in the world and half of a recent high school class has died of overdoses -- are impossible to believe.

"They call it a documentary, but it's actually a complete fiction," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, the top law enforcement officer in Southern West Virginia.

"The Oceana that Mr. Dunne dreamed up doesn't look anything like the Oceana that I know."

Dunne has repeatedly denied interview requests and requests to see the movie before it is released.

Many solutions were offered -- tougher laws, more treatment facilities, different enforcement tactics -- but the clear consensus was that a solution would only come from citizens taking more responsibility for the town and talking together as a community.

"This fight won't be won in the courthouse or the statehouse or the House or the Senate, it has to be won house by house," Goodwin said.

Sen. Manchin is pushing for legislation that would change hydrocodone -- the most prescribed drug in the country -- from a schedule 3 narcotic to a schedule 2 narcotic, making it much more difficult to over-prescribe and abuse. But, like the other speakers, he stressed that solutions need to come through parents, kids, teachers and friends.

"Government is your partner, your ally," Manchin said. "We can only do so much, as a community, you've got to want it."

Many blamed renegade doctors and pharmacists for over-prescribing highly abused medications, specifically hydrocodone and OxyContin, the drug that's given the town its nickname and the movie its name.

Joseph Rannazzisi, an administrator with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, described patients going to as many as five doctors to get repeat prescriptions and then selling the pills. There are monitoring systems in place to stop this, but too often they go unused.

"Why aren't the doctors using the monitoring programs?" Rannazzisi asked. "The doctors don't do it and neither do the pharmacists because it's too time consuming. Is patient care too time consuming?

"There are bad doctors and bad pharmacists and bad nurses and bad companies that are doing this for one reason, greed."

It's a problem not just in Oceana, not just in the coal towns of Appalachia, but across the country.

"It is of epic proportion," Manchin said. "Everyone I come across knows someone who's been affected."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.

 


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