"Oxyana," new doc on how Oxycontin addiction is destroying Appalachian communities

"Nothing here but Oxy and coal," says one of the subjects of Sean Dunne's new documentary Oxyana, which just won Special Jury Mention at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. From Capital New York's review: "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.'" More at Indiewire and Cinema Blend. Dunne is the same director behind the Insane Clown Posse doc "American Juggalo." (HT: nils_gilman)


  1. The NFB produced a documentary in 2006 called “Cottonland.” That film showed the effects of Oxycontin on the coal-mining town of Glace Bay, NS, not far from where I grew up. Sad that these problems seem to pop up like malign Whack-a-moles. http://www.nfb.ca/film/cottonland/

    1. Thanks for the link.  I was interested to hear one person in the doc say that this particular drug addiction seems to hit the Scotch-Irish harder than those of other ethnic origins (except the indigenous people).  That certainly describes origins of the white folks of Appalachia. 

    1. That is the thing that I just cannot bear to see, kids being hurt. If people want to go doing stupid shit to themselves, fine, but kids need people to take care of them. I don’t care if its the mom or the dad – neither one gets to do drugs or be a negligent person in my book. 

      1. if you think this is a “gets to” situation, you aren’t paying attention.  for many, this isn’t really a choice.  in many cases, including the one above, the kids come after the addiction.

    2.  Then they take away her baby, and she can’t understand why.  So everyone just goes to Taco Bell and kind of forgets about it.  That movie is insane.  It appears the coal industry has just completely wrecked that region.

    3. I thought that was a really powerful film. Julian Nitzberg is a great director, and it was a very different kind of filmmaking than “Oxyana,” but I’m glad to see the story told in a new way.

    1.  Yes, that’s abundantly demonstrated, but to change that you have to help people.  If you blame the drug you can take actions that attack dealers and users and take children away from their parents, and similar projects that are more to the tastes of American leadership.

        1. Over a century ago heroin was introduced and marketed as a nonaddictive morphine. You couldn’t possibly get addicted.

          While it is a huge pharmaceutical company error it’s also an error human minds are prone to making repeatedly. We see opiates have a huge effectiveness against pain and most of us want that without the addiction and mental sloppiness and other negative effects. A chemist comes along and thinks that he can separate the good effects from the bad chemically and he makes a new formulation. I have no idea why upper management gets on board but soon they are marketing a new opiate pain medicine. Despite assurances The bad effects pile up and kill some people and we over react with legislation to punish those injured. Somewhere another chemist see the mess and is sure he can solve it and begins work on a new formulation.

    2. Well, that certainly explains why poor, poverty-stricken Michael Jackson bought it. And Elvis, and Whitney, and…

      Seriously, do you realize how simple-minded that sounds? The drug war is killing people, lots of ’em, but you know what? So are some of the drugs. You sound like someone who wants to blame cholera on dehydration and not the germ.

      1. Come on- it was a general observation – not a law of physics. The epidemiological data is pretty clear on prevalence of addiction correlating with social deprivation. The point is oxycontin is everywhere – the problems observed in these communities arent.

        1. I’m with ya. Explanatory context is a big bugaboo to some folks. Or just too hard to wrap their brains around.

        2.  So if the problem in some other place exists but isn’t as bad as it is in Appalachia, and the suffering can’t be blamed on poverty, what then? Seriously, dude, it’s a Bad Drug, not quite Substance D, but getting closer.

        3. (This is largely orthogonal to your main point; but it’s not as though the entertainment industry is a wellspring of psychologically sound characters… Some of them do well enough to be kind of screwed up and really wealthy; but it isn’t any kind of news that the entertainment business shuffles through a steady cast of wildly self-destructive characters, and has for ages)

          1.  an interesting point.. maybe.  entertainment industry produces what people will consume.  same as dealers.  same underlying societal problems. 

      2. ” You sound like someone who wants to blame cholera on dehydration and not the germ.”

        Actually a reasonably good analogy: There are some differences in human susceptibility to cholera infection(some genetic tidbits, plus a morass of complex immunology); but at a population level everyone is more or less equally vulnerable if exposed to the pathogen.

        Which is why the (vast) differences in rate of incidence and mortality rates are largely down to social factors. Your chances of getting it depend mostly on how good your potable water supply is, and your chances of not dying after you do get it depend mostly on your local healthcare system.

        Anybody who decided to go all HIV-denialist on cholera and assert that the disease is ’caused’ by bad sewage treatment and poor supportive care would obviously be wrong; we’ve identified the bacterium and watched it at work; but if you care about morbidity and mortality rates, the properties of the bacterium alone have very few answers for you.

        The fact that a nice, peppy, opiate is seriously habit forming is sufficiently evident as to be trivial. This tells us little about why they are barely on the radar in some areas and cutting like a scythe through others.

        1. I’d prefer not getting cholera in the first place, myself, to having it treated successfully. (I was thinking of treatment, not prevention, in my analogy. You are right that the community’s underlying problems need fixed.)

          But I like that last clause of yours quite a bit: “barely on the radar in some areas and cutting like a scythe through others”.

          Suffering happens one person at a time, and there are people fucked up by big pharma greed all over. But when it clusters like this and comes into public view, it’s a PR problem for legalization, isn’t it?

          We desperately need to make marijuana legal so we can talk sense about other drugs with it out of the way. It’s so radically different–nearly harmless, not addictive*, without violence associated with its use alone–from the serious drugs of abuse (like alcohol, which ain’t going away) that its continued illegality warps reality around it. And personal possession and use of just about anything should be legal, too.

          But I don’t see any reason to shrug at money coming in hand over fist from making people miserable. I don’t care whether it’s Big Pharma, Mexican cartels, or white supremacist gangs. Pee on ’em all.

          *Yes, it’s dependence forming. So are comfort food, prayer, sex, exercise, you name it. I can live with that.

          1.  that’s where the analogy breaks down.  are you suggesting we should eradicate addiction forming (but otherwise HUGELY beneficial) drugs the way we mostly have with cholera to prevent their ill-affects?

          2. No. In fact, I don’t even want to eliminate non-medical use of dangerous drugs. I do want to see the very dangerous ones regulated.

            People have every right to control the internal state of their own minds and bodies. Others don’t have an unlimited right to profit off of it. That’s all.

          3. can’t reply below you, silly disqus thread depth limit…
            i agree, mostly, @JohnAArkansawyer:disqus  interesting that you call what you want more “regulation”.  i haven’t yet seen examples of how to keep drugs from being overly profitable (contributing to some but not most of the problem in this case), while still stimulating advanced drug development.  age-old problem of regulation vs. free-market.
            syphon profits via tax (on producers and non-medical consumers) for drug rehab/counseling/universal healthcare maybe?  limit CEO compensation in publicly held companies?

  2. The thing I find really sad is that even if Oxy were gone tomorrow, some other drug would move in and the same problems would continue (Meth etc.)  
    There is a generational problem where the lack of education and pervasive hopelessness/helplessness coupled with no alternatives and no way out have keep many of these rural communities in an endless cycle for decades…    Its like the innercities… except “its not supposed to happen here” and more people are willing to pretend to care about it for 15 minutes or so.

  3. Maybe I’m jaded, but I’ma little dubious about some of the claims made in this film. I have no doubt there are very serious problems in this community, but half of one guys graduating class is dead? How big was the class?

    1. If half the people you went through most of your schooling with died by the time you were a young adult, I think you’d still find it pretty devestating, even if it was only a handfull of people overall.

        1. No, I didn’t.  You’re trying to minimize the potential devestation of losing your cohort to a pernicious addiction and crushing poverty.  

          1.  i believe he’s rightfully suspicious that HALF of his cohorts were lost to pernicious addiction

      1. I’m not from the town in question, but one very similar in PA. I am almost 22. More than 10% of my class of 60 I graduated with when I was 17 are dead. My younger brother is dead. Every death involved OD’s or driving while using.

    2. Teen and young adult mortality is astounding in West Virginia even without drugs.

  4. From ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ by Gabor Mate:

    ‘Addiction is any repeated behavior, substance-related or not, in which a person feels compelled to persist, regardless of its negative impact on his life and the lives of others.  Addiction involves:

    1. compulsive engagement with the behavior, a preoccupation with it;
    2. impaired control over the behavior;
    3. persistence or relapse despite evidence of harm; and
    4. dissatisfaction, irritability, or intense craving when the object — be it a   drug, activity, or other goal — is not immediately available.’

    ‘Addiction has biological, chemical, neurological, psychological, medical, emotional, social, political, economic, and spiritual underpinnings…’

    What addicts have in common are ‘altered states of brain’ that begin quite early in a person’s life, maybe as babies, often as small children.  Addiction in our culture is common.  Those who are drug and alcohol addicted are simply the most public, and stigmatized.

  5. These area used to be pro-union and voted solidly for the Democrats.

    Now they are anti-union, vote overwhelmingly Republican, and the average life expectancy of entire counties is plunging because of drug addiction.

    1. They will tell you they are “Scotch Irish”. Some of them are that other are actually scotch or irish or german. They were made up of settlers form either country and some northern england who immigrated just after those areas had been in constant warfare and had been constantly manipulated by english masters. Actual scotch-irish were England’s calvinist go to guys for oppressing the irish but don’t let them think they are being manipulated.

      In the stone bosom of the application mountains they pretty much missed the enlightenment, they brought their sense of warriors honor and their fear of sophisticated manipulators and let all that fester for centuries.

      West Virginia succeeded from Virginia after Virginia succeeded from the Union during but I wouldn’t say because they were Pro-Union. They saw their plantation neighbors as the sophisticated manipulators stirring up trouble and the bigger closer threat so they tried to make common cause against them. 

      West Virginians are not good at coming together in a common cause. After west virginia succeeded from the south they fought . . .  other west virginians. 

      After the civil war west virginia was not part of the reconstruction plan and West Virginians switched pretty fast to seeing the federal government as the sophisticated manipulator and biggest threat. I don’t think the federal government thought too much about them, it was the coal companies who came in and took over. Pimped those people out to poverty, black lung, and company towns but don’t let them know they are being manipulated.

  6. Just adding to the chorus:  the Appalachians have severe poverty and ignorance to deal with.   OxyC  just happens to be the Bad Boy du Jour so far as what substance is killing them.   

    1. I’d love to retire some where along the Appalachians, but that would assume I’d have money and time on my hands.  Actually making a living in a lot of places in the mountains is a zero sum game.  The land and views are great, the job prospects not so much.

  7. I spent the first 18 years of my life in a town near Oceana. I know the area rather well. Thankfully I escaped, but I have plenty of family that still live back there.

    A few of the wonderful things about living there is that you have nature in your backyard. As a kid I would often hike the hillsides and explore the woods.  Many people loved hunting and fishing, which is in abundance there. In recent years ATV and dirt bike trails have become very popular with locals and visitors. The people there are sometimes suspicious of outsiders but they are extremely friendly. Nevertheless, living there is like living in a tomb. Even though the mountains can offer various forms of entertainment, the mountains can suffocate the spirit. Sunrise is not at 5 or 6am, but at about 10am. There is light early in the morning, but you can’t actually see the sun until it rises high enough to be seen over the tops of the mountains. Likewise, the sun sets at 4pm in the summer. I think this impacts mental health — I know it did for me, and I left. I’m not claustrophobic, but I also didn’t want to live jammed between two mountains for the rest of my life.

    The economy has been in slow decline for decades. While coal mining is the predominant industry, it’s not the only industry. There is also natural gas and timber. Coal miners used to be paid high wages relative to the low cost of living in the area. One of my high school classmates was 19 years old and earning $60K/year to drive a coal truck back in 1985. In an area where the cost of living is almost nil, he had a lot of disposable income — at least while he was working. Once the jobs leave, so do a lot of the people. The ones that remain refuse to move away from family for a better life. Depression sets in. Those who aren’t working are receiving disability payments (and in some cases they are capable but Social Security judges disability in light of the jobs available in the surrounding area).

    The problem with drugs has been around for a very long time, but continues to get worse with each passing year. The prescription writing mills and prescription filling mills are ever-present. I know some of these people and it pains me to see what they have become. Oceana is not the only town that has a problem, but it is just an example of one for the movie. There are other towns in the region with same problems (or worse). If you think pictures of dilapidated, abandoned Detroit are bad, just imagine the same images surrounded by alternating hillsides instead of alternating city streets. The effect is the same.

  8. This is one that is up here in Canada as well. You know it is bad when it is announced that the replacement of Oxy, with a non-additive alternative was a crisis of epic proportions simply because so many people are addicted to Oxy. It was mentioned that some Native communities have addiction rates of 60-80% (which I presume are smaller communities). Which already have a unacceptably high suicide rate. If you simply turn off the Oxy tap without any treatment, and lot of bad things are going to happen (including smuggling, other substance abuse, crime, etc..) and not just in Native communities, but any that has a high degree of addiction to Oxy.

    1.  there is a non-addictive “replacement” for oxy?  believe it when i see it, for more than one reason

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