2,000 Words on What the Feds' Opiate Scare Flick Gets Wrong

'Chasing the Dragon' showcases brutal honesty and fatal flaws.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration have combined forces to produce a 49-minute educational documentary video called Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict.

The video is intended as an object lesson for high-school age students. These kids need to be protected from America’s surging addiction-epidemic, which appears to have placed middleclass white youth at risk for becoming strung out.

The pretext of Chasing the Dragon is that susceptible children will be less inclined to experiment with highly addictive and readily available narcotics if the children have their faces rubbed in the harsh realities of being hooked on pills and heroin.

Chasing the Dragon opens in what passes for a typical suburban high-school hallway. Kids shut their lockers and scurry off, presumably toward class.

Two pasty older dudes in casual office attire stand conspicuous in that milk-fresh sea of youth. What business could these middle-aged men have on this campus? They are not wearing ties, and they look too full of themselves to be school employees.

The white gentlemen introduce themselves as caring public servants: FBI Director James Comey, and Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA’s acting administrator.

In this day and age, at this stage of opioid market saturation, who on the consumer end is not already acutely aware of the horrors of pharmaceutical abuse?

Comey and Rosenberg address you, the audience, directly—as if we are part of a teen horde squeezed into the gym for a mandatory assembly.

The heads of the DEA and the FBI spit out key stats: More than 46,000 people die every year in the United States from prescription drug and heroin overdose.

Documents, headlines, and syringes flash onscreen, backing up the narration: More people succumb to narcotic overdoses than to traffic fatalities or to gun violence. Half of these deaths, the federal law-enforcement executives reveal, are related to prescription opioid abuse.

The FBI director thinks the best approach to combating this plague is to “let you hear the truth. No filters, no censors, just the straight facts” from addicts themselves.

“You’ll learn what happens when drugs take hold of real people and don’t let go.”

In the back of the imaginary gym, a hand is raised, and a question: “In this day and age, at this stage of opioid market saturation, who on the consumer end is not already acutely aware of the horrors of pharmaceutical abuse? Is there anybody in the audience who has not fully learned this lesson? Seen it in the family and the neighborhood? Painfully.”

Chasing the Dragon moves right along, and that question is shelved.

We are informed that the victims of this scourge are “kids from stable homes with strong families. Good people.”

We see a montage of cute white preteens who “took one wrong turn, and they were hooked.”

Flames from disposable lighters lick the bottoms of spoons. Fluid bubbles.

Image via luque/VSCO

During the course of Chasing the Dragon, a handful of victims addresses the audience. In general, the victims look like almost anyone from an early iteration of The Real World.

Matt is defined onscreen: Began using marijuana at age 11. Became addicted to opiates at age 15.

Sarah: Began using marijuana as a teenager. Became addicted to opiates after being prescribed oxycodone.

Julie: Began using marijuana at age 11. Overdosed on oxycodone four times.

Cory: Began drug use with marijuana. Addicted to opiates by age 17.

Melissa: Began using marijuana at age 13. Has eight drug-related arrests.

Julie boasted a 3.43 GPA, and took piano lessons and gymnastics. Corey was an Eagle Scout. Sarah has vocal fry.

You might be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be surprised that the DEA and the FBI neglected to extend their video outreach to any black faces out in the auditorium.

Aside from being noted as marijuana graduates, Chasing the Dragon’s victims share one unifying trait: They are all white. Or off-white: Julie defines herself as half-Korean and could be regarded as Chasing the Dragon’s nod to diversity.

In fairness, one black kid appears in Chasing the Dragon, in a nonspeaking capacity. He shows up during a reenactment clip that illustrates a cheerleader from a good home falling in with bad kids.

Someone might conclude—from the film’s all-white wash—that the FBI and DEA are showing no interest in saving African American kids from death by pills.

A 2014 study by the Brookings Institution—one of the oldest and most esteemed think tanks in America—defined black Americans as “collateral damage” in the War on Drugs. This view was echoed by the Cato Institute, founded by the Charles Koch Foundation, which concluded in winter 2011 that the War on Drugs “destroys black families” and is “the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element of the American social fabric.”

So, really, you might be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be surprised that the DEA and the FBI neglected to extend their video outreach to any black faces out in the auditorium.

Chasing the Dragon’s omission of at-risk children of color is, to coin a phrase, glaring, but there is no shortage of tough honesty. The good family kids who have become ensnared in the insidious spiral of addiction, and one parent who lost a daughter to narcotics overdose, recount the sordid and wrenching details of their cruel descent with stark, unflinching candor.

These survivors, speaking alone into the camera, seem to be motivated by a sincere desire to share personal pain so that others might be spared their gruesome and all-too-common suffering. While the witnesses to the plague testify, emotive images and video clips take over the screen: A young woman reclines dead of an OD in a filth-filled bathtub. Her friends file past looking for a less no-chill place to shoot up.

Image via mairzubieta/VSCO

Trish, the dead cheerleader’s mom, reveals her deep anger that the drug was so much more important than anything or anyone else to her daughter.

An onscreen caption states that people can become addicted to painkillers with just one prescription.

The kids talk about shooting up to stop being sick, not even anticipating a high. They confess to thieving, working at strip clubs, and resorting to prostitution to finance their raging habits. In words and pictures, the audience learns about filling syringes out of desperation with toilet water and gutter sludge. Hepatitis C is mentioned, in passing, along the way to reliving the shitty scenarios of withdrawal. Snapshots of hideous puncture wounds click past.

Melissa regales the hushed auditorium with the vivid memory of live maggots being removed from a festering abscess that resulted from unsanitary needlework. A forceps is shown pulling maggots out of a cut; the sound of chewing burns across the soundtrack.

The facts of addiction as presented in Chasing the Dragon are vile, true, and frightening.

But there is a problem with scare tactics: They don’t work.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines drug addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”

The kids in Chasing the Dragon have all seen the junkie horrors firsthand. If being scared straight were possible, the dreadful consequences every one of these sufferers has endured would be amply sufficient to put an abiding fear of the pill into them.

Possibly, contrary to an FBI special agent’s best-intentioned assertion, being locked up was not the best thing that could have happened to Cierra. 

The false presumption that a fright-fest of horror-show narratives will repel the general viewing public is not the worst of what’s wrong with this picture.

Ultimately, Chasing the Dragon’s disappointments highlight two major failings of the War on Drugs protocol of criminalizing what experts who are not in the FBI or DEA classify as a disease.

The law-enforcement agencies behind this movie are unable to grasp the concept that imprisonment is not treatment. In one telling reenactment, a team of militarized police crouches behind powerful firearms, rushes behind a battering ram through a residential door, and takes a lone woman into custody.

Image via jpbro/VSCO

FBI Special Agent Andrew Lenhart takes the screen, probably in his 40s, wearing a leather jacket like Michael Keaton’s drug cop character in Jackie Brown: “The best thing that can happen to someone addicted to oxycodone is that they can be arrested,” says Agent Lenhart, unequivocally. “That’s the best thing. The best thing is that they can be arrested and go to jail. Everything other than that, it’s worse. It’s gonna end in a bad way.”

At the end of Chasing the Dragon, we learn that honor student Julia was freed from jail after serving 16 months. Shortly after her release, Julia returned to abusing opiates and was arrested.

Months after filming, Sarah was released from prison. Only hours after her release, she returned to abusing opiates, which led her back to jail.

Trish, mother of Cierra, the cheerleader who became addicted to opiates while in high school, confesses: “I put my own child in jail to stop this.”

Seven months later, Cierra was released to her family, healthy, clean and well fed. Within weeks, the child was found dead of an overdose in her bedroom.

Possibly, contrary to an FBI special agent’s best-intentioned assertion, being locked up was not the best thing that could have happened to Cierra. Maybe, if being jailed and criminalized is the best treatment option available to Americans in the grip of addiction, then our best option is nowhere near good enough. And, quite possibly, in searching out solutions to a crisis that evidence suggests is exacerbated by incarceration, we should not look toward specialists who are paid to lock people up.

“There’s help out there,” insists Cierra’s mother in parting. “You’ve got to take it. Don’t think you can do it alone, because you can’t.”

Unfortunately, America’s medical-industrial complex is just as powerful and even more deeply entrenched in the workings of our government as is any drug cartel in Mexico.

Where is that help? Do we turn to the medical community? Can we expect doctors—many of whom actively contribute to the problem through overprescription or fail to understand addiction's origins and conditions—to cure the complex particulars inherent to the illness?

Deeni Bassam, MD, a board certified anesthesiologist and pain specialist, provides Chasing the Dragon’s medical expertise. “A friend offers you something at a party or at home,” he confides. “Somebody hands you a pill and says, ‘Here, this will help you feel better.’ That’s how this problem always starts.”

Bassam shakes his head, seeming mystified that anyone might fail to comprehend his absolute and obvious truth. An onscreen caption reads: Most first time abusers of painkillers obtain them through a friend or relative.

This entrenched belief system might be lost on Melissa. She tells Chasing the Dragon viewers of being introduced to Oxycontin at age 22, after the birth of her first child, by a doctor who refilled that prescription multiple times, to the extent allowed by law.

Image via unonovenovantuno/VSCO

A Stanford University study released in 2014 found that “the overprescription of opioid painkillers is being driven by a large number of general practitioners,” including “family practitioners, internal medicine practitioners, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants.” 

In the opinion of Stanford’s researchers, “Efforts to curtail national opioid overprescribing must address a broad swath of prescribers to be effective.”

In February 2015, a team of researchers from Brandeis and Johns Hopkins universities published findings that the Heller School for Social Policy and Management summarized as: “Opioid addiction caused by overprescribing, not recreational abuse, is key driver of painkiller and heroin overdose crisis.”

Amplifying the anecdotal expertise of a doctor who refuses to acknowledge his profession’s complicity in an overdose parade that kills 44 people in the USA every day typifies a doomed FBI and DEA approach that has sentenced many thousands of struggling Americans to unnecessary imprisonment and needless death.

Chasing the Dragon’s gravest flaw is that it extends a strategy to curtail individual and societal detriments of drug use by focusing on the end consumers.

If minimizing instances of drug addiction is the true aim, this punitive scrutiny would be better applied at the top of the supply chain. The source manufacturers of these laboratory-produced, highly addictive products are named right there in the brands. The people who profit by their production and marketing are easily identified.

Unfortunately, America’s medical-industrial complex is just as powerful and even more intricately entrenched in the workings of our government as is any drug cartel in Mexico.

And, sad to say, with 40,000 deaths a year, the USA’s pill pushers are every bit as deadly as El Chapo and his cohorts to the south.