Oceana is a misnomer, a small town at the confluence of the Clear Fork and Laurel Fork rivers in the mountains of southern West Virginia, some 400 miles from the nearest ocean. Lately, locals have given it a more accurate appellation. They call it Oxyana.
My mother was from there. When I was growing up, my family drove across the mountains two or three times a year to visit my grandmother’s little white house in Oceana, which included the kind of country appurtenances that stuck in a kid’s memory — a front porch swing, a vegetable field plowed behind a borrowed mule, a gray clapboard smokehouse, a yard full of chickens lorded over by a rooster known to terrorize small children.
The town itself wasn’t much to look at, but the setting, on a verdant alluvial plain below the mountain ridges, made a fine advertisement for Appalachian scenery. Oceana, tranquil and friendly and a little dull, pretty much embodied the myth of country American living, back when the myth was mostly true. Back before oxycodone, most of it imported out of Florida’s barely regulated pill mills, became a rural epidemic.
Last month, Oxyana premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, a documentary set in what’s left of my mom’s hometown. The film festival’s website described documentarian Sean Dunn’s work: “Struggling with poverty and unemployment after the demise of its only industry — the mining trade that had historically nourished the local economy — Oceana, West Virginia, has become the epicenter of a drug scourge devastating towns across the country and leaving many good and honest communities forsaken.”
Dunn, the synopsis continued, “turns the camera on its many residents, allowing them to tell their stories in their own words and homes and illuminate how their unique stories have led them each to the same tragic inevitability of pill addiction.”
The Oxyana trailer offers a brutal contradiction to my childhood memories, but it corroborates the unhappy stories coming out of Wyoming County and the southern West Virginia coal fields these last few years, about economic hardship and abandonment by the residents who can find work elsewhere. Those left behind deal with the kind of social problem once associated with urban inner cities, with drug addiction and illegal trafficking and familial abuse and violence and the burglaries and robberies and the occasional shootings associated with the drug trade. Except, instead of crack, rural junkies are robbing and stealing and neglecting their children for oxy. Instead of South America, the drugs are coming out of Florida’s pill mills.
All this has made it slightly strange, writing about Florida’s barely regulated, wildly profitable oxy mills, knowing that it was fueling a with prescription pain pills epidemic back home in Appalachia. Two years ago Wyoming County, with less than 24,000 residents, was averaging two fatal oxy overdoses a week. Often, the drugs had originated in one of South Florida’s 183 storefront pain pill clinics.
Finally, in 2011, the state lawmakers and a reluctant Gov. Rick Scott approved legislation regulating the operation of pain clinics and creating a data bank that allowed doctors to check, with a simple computer inquiry, whether a patient had been hopping around from one physician to another, filling a series of oxy prescriptions worth a fortune on the black market.
It was a tepid feint at control (doctors aren’t required to actually check the database before issuing pain pill prescriptions) but it helped. Florida oxycodone overdoses fell by 17 percent last year. Georgia replaced Florida as the nation’s pain-pill bazaar. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February showed that the owners of a number of Georgia’s newly opened pain clinics had come up out of Florida, fleeing the new regulations. Last week Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a new pain-pill law modeled after Florida’s.
Florida’s database surely has helped get rid of many of the unscrupulous pain-pill peddlers. Yet, the governor and the Legislature came excruciatingly close to defunding the program in the recently ended annual session.
Gov. Scott didn’t include the $500,000 needed to fund the prescription-drug monitoring program in his proposed budget. Nor was the money included in the budget that emerged from the House of Representatives. “It was scary,” said state Rep. Mike Fasano, longtime champion of a pill-mill crackdown. “We were minutes away from not having any money for the database.”
Fasano said the funding these past two years had been raised out of private grants, but that money was exhausted. Without state money, it would have been shut down. “This was just baffling. Anyone in the law enforcement community or the medical community could tell them we need this.”
Fasano fired off a letter to the Speaker of the House, Will Weatherford, last week, begging him to save the program. Attorney General Pam Bondi backed him up.
The program got a temporary reprieve. “We’re good for one year,” Fasano said. “Next year, we’re back to square one.”
He said, “You know what? If this had been some special interest, some vendor who wanted this to happen, there would not have been a problem. But because there wasn’t some huge lobbying effort, no special interest benefits, we had to beg and plead. All this does is save lives.”
Fasano’s words might not mean much to the special interests who determine priorities in Tallahassee, but in a place dubbed Oxyana, they live with the crushing implications.