David Frum

04.29.13

How Drugs Ruined This Small Town

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Here's a movie for the drug legalizer in your Twitter feed.

"Nothing here but Oxy and coal," says one of the subjects of Sean Dunne's mournful documentary Oxyana. The "here" is Oceana, a once-bustling mining town in West Virginia, now decimated by Oxycontin addiction to the point where the media have rebranded it "Oxyana."

An entire generation has been wiped out, and addiction touches everyone's lives. One guy interviewed says, "I'm 23. Half my graduating class is dead." …

West Virginia leads the country in prescription overdoses. A doctor at Raleigh General Hospital says that half of the babies in the nursery are on methadone. A recent book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, describes the situation in West Virginia: "A decade ago only about 5% of those seeking treatment in West Virginia needed help with opiate addiction. Today that number has ballooned to 26%. It recorded 91 overdose deaths in 2001. By 2008 that number had risen to 390."

The people interviewed in Sean Dunne's documentary, all participants in the epidemic (either as helpless bystanders or addicts themselves), seem blindsided by how quickly Oxy took over. It's not just the addicts, it's the dealers who keep it going, and, as one interview subject observes, "Drugs created an economy in the town."

In a matter of 15 years, a normal community where people felt safe raising their kids has become a town where it is common for teenage girls to prostitute themselves for money. Oceana was a place where you didn't feel the need to lock your doors. Now, it is tortured by violence. One of the most unforgettable people we meet in Oxyana is an Oxy dealer (and addict) who says bluntly, "It's an epidemic around here.

Many people can experiment with drugs, then quit without excessive trouble. Some people can use drugs for years and remain more or less functional. But more of us - most of us - can't. I haven't seen Oxyana yet myself. But I'm looking forward to seeing somebody speak up for those who need their ability to "say no" to be supported by the law, not undermined by it.