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Oceana spurred to act against drug abuse

OCEANA, W.Va. -- A new documentary that almost no one has seen has outraged citizens of Oceana, but it has also galvanized them to take action and fight the prescription drug abuse epidemic that afflicts the town and so many like it.

Oceana residents held a town meeting Friday night with some of West Virginia's top politicians -- Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Nick Rahall and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant -- to discuss the documentary "Oxyana."

Everyone agrees on at least one thing: Oceana has a prescription drug problem.

Larry Mathis, a longtime Oceana resident and Wyoming County commissioner, was visibly emotional as he talked about seeing his youngest son's two friends die from drug abuse.

"These boys used to come to my house, play tee-ball -- I coached them," Mathis said. "There was a picture upstairs of those three boys, and he [Mathis' son] was in the middle. And he said, 'Dad, what's the matter with this picture?' And the only answer I had was, 'Son, two guys made a wrong choice in life and one guy made the right choice.'"

About 200 people came to Friday's meeting, a fairly extraordinary number for a town of fewer than 1,400. Oceana Mayor John Roach said it was the largest turnout he'd seen in 40 years of going to town meetings.

Two themes emerged: The community must band together to save itself from prescription drugs, and the bleak, hellish picture painted by the "Oxyana" preview trailer is terribly unfair to this picturesque coal mining town.

"With one brush of his artistic pen, he attempted to define Oceana and its residents as a place of hopelessness," said D.J. Morgan, an Oceana resident and the meeting's organizer.

"Oxyana" was screened in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and its director, Sean Dunne, won best new documentary director.

But it has not been screened since then, and Dunne, through a spokeswoman, declined interview requests until the film is released on a wide scale.

So all Oceana residents have to go on is a two-minute video on the movie's website.

Obviously trailers are made to sell movies and, thus, tend to exaggerate, but the "Oxyana" trailer shows a town that's impossible to reconcile with the hardworking, resolute citizens who came to Friday's meeting.

Set to an ominous soundtrack of brooding fiddle and foreboding drumbeat, the trailer gives a parade of anonymous voices that exaggerate a serious problem to pandemic proportions:

"Half my graduating class is dead. I'm 23 years old."

"I've seen 8-, 9-, 10-year-old kids shooting dope."

"If it wasn't for drugs in this town, there wouldn't be no town."

"A lot of stuff that happens here is just not normal."

Officials and citizens said that, unfortunately, the problems of Oceana are actually far too normal.

In 2010, more than 16,500 people nationwide died from abusing prescription painkillers, a death rate four times higher than in 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those painkillers -- including hydrocodone and OxyContin -- the drug that gives the movie its name -- account for the largest share of drug overdoses nationwide, which now have increased for 11 consecutive years.

West Virginia's rate of prescription drug deaths is the second highest in the nation and more than double the national average.

"The idea from this movie, that the streets of Oceana are packed with people walking around like zombies because they're high on pills, that's just garbage and Mr. Dunne knows that. He's exploiting an ugly stereotype about West Virginia and the people of West Virginia," said Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for Southern West Virginia.

Goodwin said prescription drugs are particularly difficult to fight around the country because they can be so ubiquitous and commonplace.

"That doesn't make us any different from anywhere else in the country," Goodwin said. "This is perhaps the most challenging drug problem that there really ever has been. These are legal drugs -- they're not Mexican or Colombian cartels -- 70 percent come from friends and family and straight out of the medicine cabinet."

Hydrocodone is the most prescribed drug in the country.

Overprescribing and pill mills -- doctors or pharmacists who set up shop with no purpose other than to hand out prescriptions and pills to anyone willing to pay -- are a huge part of the problem, but officials also told residents to be careful with their legitimately acquired medications.

"Medications sitting around your medicine cabinets and in your houses are nothing but trouble," said Joseph Rannazzisi, an administrator with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "It's easy access for kids and young adults to get medicine and get high."

Rannazzisi and others also talked about the need to provide enough drug treatment facilities.

"If you get arrested and released, but you don't get treated, you go back to that same cycle of getting arrested over and over and over again. And either you're going to go to jail permanently, or you're going to die, but there's no other way out," Rannazzisi said.

Wyoming County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Cochrane estimated that there are 15,000 to 20,000 people in Southern West Virginia with drug problems but only 300 beds available in treatment facilities.

"Man, that is just staggering," Cochrane said. "That's what's needed: more effective treatment facilities."

The prison reform bill recently passed by the Legislature includes $25 million in new funding, over the next five years, primarily devoted to drug treatment programs.

Many culprits were blamed for the drug problem, from pill mills and methadone clinics to lenient penalties, lost coal jobs and greedy pharmaceutical companies.

And while many pushed for tougher laws and new programs, most everyone agreed that there is no easy answer, that the community must come together and do a better job stopping drug use before it starts.

"Local communities are so close-knit. It's so important that you guys talk to each other, because my message here today is one of hope, but my message is also one of community involvement," Rannazzisi said. "You just can't count on enforcement to handle this problem. The problem is much deeper."

All agreed that the problem is urgent.

"It, quite frankly, is killing our children," Tennant said. "We cannot solve this as individuals."

Dunne was persona non grata at the meeting and has repeatedly declined to speak to the media until his movie is released. But an interview he gave in April shows that while he may be unwelcome, his sentiments would not be entirely out of place in Oceana.

"There is hope for Wyoming County, but it's not the government, or coal mining, or God, the hope is in the people," Dunne told PolicyMic.com, a commentary and opinion forum. "Addicted or not, these are great people with big hearts, who I think are capable of rising above this. But it has to start with an open mind."

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


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