‘Oxyana’ Documentary, at Tribeca, Exposes the OxyContin Epidemic
Marlow Stern on the devastating OxyContin documentary “Oxyana,” which is premiering at Tribeca.
The drive to Oceana, West Virginia, mirrors the opening sequence of The Shining. From nearby Beckley, it’s a treacherous 20-mile journey along a two-lane road that dips and curves through the Appalachian Mountains.
“You feel like you’re cut off, and it adds to this feeling of hopelessness,” says Oceana resident Mike Moore.
A mining town of just 1,500, Oceana has been dubbed the unofficial OxyContin capital of the world, with the majority of its residents addicted to the pharmaceutical drug. The situation has gotten so dire that many West Virginians now refer to the place as “Oxyana.”
The devastating effects of OxyContin on the community are explored in the gripping new documentary Oxyana through interviews with addicts, prostitutes, concerned citizens, doctors, dentists, and politicians. The film, the feature directorial debut of Sean Dunne, currently lacks distribution but is one of the best documentaries at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
“Half of my graduating class is dead ’cause of pills,” explains a 23-year-old resident in Oxyana. “You’ll see grandparents raising the kids because the parents are too messed up to take care of ’em. That’s my generation.”
“People are afraid to let their kids walk down the street,” adds a young girl. “Ain’t nothin’ but junkies and hookers hangin’ out in Oceana.”
OxyContin is the brand name for a time-release version of the pain-relief opiate oxycodone produced by Purdue Pharma. It’s administered in pill form with up to 80mg of pure oxycodone in a single pill, providing 12 hours of pain relief. While it’s prescribed to treat everything from severe diarrhea to cancer pain, “Oxy” also has an extremely high abuse potential, producing feelings of euphoria similar to another opioid narcotic: heroin. And like heroin, Oxy abusers often crush up the pills and snort or mix them in a water solution for injection. In rural Appalachia, the drug is sometimes referred to as “hillbilly heroin.” After the Food and Drug Administration approved Oxy in 1995, it was introduced into the U.S. marketplace the following year. By 2001, sales of the drug exceeded $1 billion, making Oxy the bestselling nongeneric narcotic pain reliever in the country. And, according to a 2010 national survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, OxyContin abuse and addiction costs approximately Americans $400 billion a year.
Since Oxy can’t be prescribed in Oceana, distributors and abusers usually go to out-of-town or even out-of-state doctors. One drug dealer in the film, who likens the situation there to “the Wild West,” claims to pay a doctor in Washington, D.C., $1,000 to receive a one-month prescription of 450 30mg Oxy pills. That’s 15 pills a day. And since a single 30mg Oxy pill sells for $45 on the street, the dealer stands to make $20,250 per “transaction.”
“We interviewed a pain clinic in Beckley, and it was one of the strangest interviews I’d ever done,” says Dunne. “It was a cash business and you’d pay about $900 and walk out with a prescription. That can feed your kids, a pill bottle like that.”
Moore, 45, is one of the subjects of Dunne’s documentary. He is the father of two girls, ages 16 and 17, and moved to Oceana in 1997 to set up a dental practice. When he moved there, a small percentage of the population was abusing Tylox and Percocet, but when Oxy hit town, it immediately crippled a large percentage of the townsfolk. According to Moore, Oxy landed in Oceana in about 1999, when a doctor from out of town took over a tiny house in the middle of town and transformed it into a cash-only practice. There wasn’t even a waiting room, he says, and before long, the place had a line of people all the way down the block. Moore says he witnessed the Oxy cravings firsthand at his dental office.
“We used to see a lot of people who were drug-seeking and wanted their teeth pulled out for pills,” he says. “The first year we were open, at about 11 in the morning, a guy wanted a prescription for pain medication and I wouldn’t give him any, and he said, ‘Well, what time do you get off work? I’ll be waitin’ for you outside.’ I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Why wait? Let’s go outside right now. You wanna settle it, let’s go settle it.’ He immediately backed off.”
Moore says it was a tough decision to keep his family in Oceana, given the drug problem there. One of the problems, it seems, is that the town has few alternative sources of entertainment. The nearest movie theater and bowling alley are 45 minutes away, in Beckley. But despite four overdose deaths a month—and those are only the ones that are reported, as human bones have been found on the outskirts of town—the town is still worth fighting for, he says.
“Oceana has a population of incredible, good people,” he says. “It’s beautiful, too, with outdoors stuff. If we leave, who’s going to stay? At some point you have to be like, ‘I’m not going to leave like everybody else. I’m going to try to stay and make a difference.’” He pauses. “Now, I’m not sure how long that’s going to last.”
Dunne, 31, isn’t from the area. He was born in Peekskill, New York, and now lives in Brooklyn. He happened upon Oceana on a road trip, and the more he heard about the town and its history, the more he felt it paralleled his own history with his father, and the stronger his desire was to bring it to the big screen, he says.
“My dad really struggled with prescription drugs for a long time throughout my teens and early 20s before turning to harder street stuff,” Dunne says. “Stepping out of the car in Oceana for the first time, I got the same anxious feeling that I would get when my dad would come home fucked up—that really scary, pit-of-your-stomach feeling. He’s managed to clean himself up since then, so there’s a message of hope there.”
The filmmaker raised $51,605 to finance Oxyana through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, along with a few private investors. A crew of nine people packed into two minivans to film the documentary over six weeks, beginning in April 2012.
The result is uncompromising. Oxyana shows various people discussing their addictions and the lengths they’ve gone to finance them, including prostitution, assault, and armed robbery. Several addicts are shown shooting up Oxy into their hands, including a man dying of cancer. During filming one day, Dunne and his crew entered a home with an addict mom.
“We walked in the door and this little girl ran up to our producer and held her leg and wouldn’t let go,” says Dunne. “It breaks your heart.”
Dunne and the crew were threatened on the Internet and by email before even arriving in Oceana to film. One email read, “If you dig around the drug culture down here, be ready to meet Smith & Wesson upon your arrival.” In town, they had a close call while filming a bonfire attended by a group of 18-year-old kids. The party was in a secluded area accessible only by a five-mile road.
“A couple of them didn’t mind, but then a few of them got wind of what we were doing and it became a dicey situation where they started coming towards us, and we had to peel out of there,” he says.
Some measures have been taken to combat the Oxy epidemic in Oceana, although they haven’t been very effective thus far. The drug Suboxone, which is equipped with a narcotic agent that satisfies the craving for Oxy, as well as a narcotic antagonist that blocks the effects of any drugs, have been administered in town. Unfortunately, when Oceana residents discovered how to shoot up Suboxone, a black market developed for the drug. And in 2010, because of the high rate of Oxy abuse, Purdue Pharma introduced a new brand of OxyContin, OxyContin OP, which is supposedly “abuse resistant”—it turns to mush if users attempt to cut, grind, or dissolve it. But Oceana residents have still found ways to inject the newer version, despite the hazard controls. Meanwhile, since Oceana’s county, Wyoming, is home only to about 25,000 people, law-enforcement agencies are understaffed and overwhelmed by the drug epidemic. In the film, one doctor at the nearest hospital to Oceana in Beckley, Raleigh General, estimates that 50 percent of its newborns are put on methadone because their parents are opioid abusers and that needle sharing has pushed up the rates of Hepatitis C.
Since Oxy abuse is commonly passed on from parents to children, the solution, says Moore, lies in relationship building.
“For us, it was all about relationships,” he says. “It’s still worrisome, though. Right now, I have one of my daughters’ friends who’s a senior in high school who’s an at-risk kid living on our couch because his parents are gone. I sit with him every evening and tell him I love him, and he doesn’t even know what to say to me. That’s what needs to happen more and more. You need to tell these at-risk kids that you love them, because so many of them think no one cares about them, and that makes it so much easier for them to stick a needle in their hand.” He pauses. “For me, that’s the only way it’s going to get solved.”