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Oceana officials admit drugs pose problem, search for solution

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Since 2011, more than 65 people have died in Wyoming County from drug-related incidents, said T.L. Riffe, a sergeant with the Wyoming County Sheriff's Office.

That includes murders that resulted from drug activity, but Riffe guessed probably 80 percent of the deaths were overdoses, mostly of prescription pills.

Abuse of the prescription pill OxyContin in Wyoming County and its largest city, Oceana, brought documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne to town. His film, "Oxyana," shows people talking about their struggles with the drug.

Related: Small film creates a small town furor

Many Oceana citizens are offended by the way Dunne represented the town in his trailer - most haven't seen the film because it isn't widely available. But they agree: There is a drug problem in Oceana.

"I will be the first to admit there is a drug problem, just not to the extent (in the film)," said Oceana Councilman Jim Cook. "But I don't know a community in West Virginia or the United States that doesn't have a problem."

In Southern West Virginia, law enforcement and health officials face that problem every day.

Change in crime

When Riffe started with the sheriff's office 28 years ago, the substance abuse calls were about alcohol. Now, 80 percent to 90 percent of the office's calls are drug-related.

The Kanawha County Sheriff's Office made almost twice as many arrests for marijuana as it did for prescription pills in 2012, according to data provided by the office.

In Wyoming County almost every drug-related arrest stems from prescription pills, Riffe said.

"Everybody knows there's a problem with prescription pills in our county," he said.

He's heard of "Oxyana" but doesn't know anything about the film. He said Oceana isn't any worse than anywhere else in the county when it comes to prescription pill abuse. Abuse is just as big a problem in Kentucky, Virginia and other states, he said.  

Most people in Wyoming County don't abuse drugs, he said.

"It's a safety issue for the people abusing the drugs," Riffe said. "I don't think it's a safety issue for the people not abusing the drugs."

He said the number of drug deaths is decreasing, with 41 in 2011, 21 in 2012 and six so far this year.

County Clerk Mike Goode said that sounded right. From 2004 to 2011, the average person who died from an overdose was a little more than 39 years old, Goode added.

Oceana Police Chief Jeff Barlow has seen the film trailers. He was offended, like many in Oceana, but said drugs play a role in most of the crimes in his town.

Riffe said breaking and entering is the most common crime in the county, and the same offense keeps Barlow and his four fellow full-time officers busy.

Everyone knows who is dealing drugs in town, but Barlow said knowing something and proving something are very different. A solid case means confidential informants making drug buys to establish a pattern of peddling illegal substances.

It's hard to do that when the department doesn't have enough money to buy the drugs and everyone in town knows the officers, he said.

At the height of its abuse, Barlow said one 80-milligram OxyContin pill could fetch $100. Both he and Riffe said some steps have been taken that are helping. The manufacturer has made the drug harder to abuse, and officials are working harder to fight addiction.

History of abuse

Pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma created the drug in 1995, leading to billions of dollars in profits almost immediately.

But in 2007, the company paid more than $600 million in fines and other payments after pleading guilty to charges it misled the world about the drug's addictive and dangerous properties, according to the New York Times.

In 2010, the company reformulated the drug. The new version is harder to cut or break down for purposes of snorting or injecting.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the original form of OxyContin in April, determining "the benefits of original OxyContin no longer outweigh its risks," according to an agency press release.

Other drugs - namely methadone and Suboxone - are prescribed to wean patients off addictive prescription pills. Riffe said he's seen that make a difference.

However, those drugs also are narcotics and can be taken in excess or combined to create a high.

Stephen Anderson, who has an ATV shop in Oceana, said he knows people who have been on methadone for six years. Others mix methadone with Xanax, a medicine intended to relieve anxiety.

"Everybody in southern West Virginia calls it the hillbilly cocktail," Anderson said.

"They're not just doing the methadone," he said. "They're taking the methadone with about 10 Xanax on top of it, and it's a real good buzz. And if you ask any of these people who are hooked on this stuff, they'll tell you it's better than OxyContin."

Riffe and Barlow specifically mentioned Xanax as a problem in the area. Other drugs also use the active ingredient in OxyContin, called oxycodone. Pain relievers Roxicodone - better known as "Roxies," Barlow said - and Percocet are just as prevalent and problematic.

Effect of abuse

A doctor in the film states half the babies born at Raleigh General Hospital need methadone to be treated for addiction.

Ellen King, executive director for women's and children's services at Raleigh General, said the actual figures are not that bad but still are "appalling."  

From January to March more than 300 babies were born at the hospital. Of those, 46 were tested for addiction, King said. Of the 46, five tested positive for methadone and more than a quarter were addicted to oxycodone.

The national average for oxycodone addiction is 5.6 percent of babies tested, she said. Other West Virginia hospitals that use the same testing company average 18.6 percent.

Babies are tested when the mother says she has taken drugs, hospital personnel suspect she has done so or the baby is showing signs of withdrawal, King said. The hospital sends a bit of the umbilical cord to be tested.  

The testing is to detect illicit drugs, but King said many babies also are born addicted to nicotine or caffeine.

There is nothing like watching a baby go through withdrawal, she said.

"They're fussing babies; they're not very lovable. A baby that's going through withdrawal isn't very lovable. They're stiff, they're board-like; they can't be soothed. They're physically hard.

"They're just not warm, cuddly babies."

That can lead to abuse: sometimes parents can't cope with the constant crying, King said.

Withdrawal from some drugs, like Subutex - a drug similar to Suboxone and methadone - takes longer to show up than most hospital stays, King said.

Facilities have been developed to help these families. The Turning Point, which opened recently in Beckley, provides services for expectant mothers with substance abuse problems. In Huntington, Lily's Place helps children born with addiction.

Raleigh General tries to help, too.

"I'd like to believe that we can help them while they're here," King said. "We try to educate our moms. We try to provide a positive bonding experience while they're here."

Turning the corner

Former coal miner Steve Childers knows all about Percocet. Walking toward the door of Stephen Anderson's ATV shop in Oceana, he lifted the back of his shirt to reveal a large scar along his spine. A 2006 mine accident left Childers with back surgery and pain.

It's a common story in the area, Childers said. For many, it's the precursor to addiction. Childers said he has seen buddies "get into the suck."

"I almost went down that road," Childers said. He added later, "You've got to say no when you get over (the pain)."

Childers doesn't have a job. Some mines and other companies in Southern West Virginia complain about a lack of people able to pass a drug test. Childers said he would take a drug test then and there, but no one wants to hire a 46-year-old ex-coal miner with a back problem.

He looks after the house and receives disability while his wife works as a nurse at Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital.

"Stay positive," Childers said. "It's all you can do."

That's a tall order for some. The people in the trailer for Dunne's documentary say there's no hope left in Oceana. The trailer ends with a man's solemn voice proclaiming the town wouldn't be around if it wasn't for drugs.

Those interviewed in the town think someone taking drugs all day might be hopeless. But they believe the average resident is optimistic for the future.

While no one could offer all the solutions, they said it would take awareness and teamwork, a trusting community buying in to a common cause.

Town leaders seem confident they can destroy the notion of "Oxyana."

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at

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