President Obama officially proclaimed this week Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, and on Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a documentary called ‘Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict’.
The film was screened all over the country to focus on the work being done across the governmental agencies to combat the crisis in America, but the film sounded more like an updated version of Reefer Madness.
Attorney General of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Loretta Lynch started off one of the viewings at Georgetown University by applauding the DEA and FBI for being on the front lines of the fight to end the opiate epidemic. She prefaced the documentary with a call to action. “Whether an academic or an agent, each of you have an essential role in combatting this epidemic.” She continued, “Opioid addiction has quickly emerged as a challenge of daunting proportions.
Lynch said she was astounded to learn that 3.8 million people are misusing prescription drugs, and even more shocked to learn that many of them are starting to use at 12 years of age. “But it’s the world we are facing today,” she digressed. This issue is different from the many others on the national level in that drug addiction affects the young, old, poor, rich, black, white – “it’s a national problem, and that’s why we are crafting a national solution.”
Earlier this week, Lynch visited Kentucky. Kentucky is a state so ravaged by the heroin epidemic, she created a Heroin Education Action Team (USA HEAT) to help fight the war on heroin in Kentucky communities. In her opening remarks, she said she has instructed her field officers to follow a three-pronged approach to the fight; prevent addiction, have a strong enforcement policy on prosecuting strategically to get those most responsible for the opioids, and treatment for those grappling with addiction. On stage, she said addiction is a ‘disease’ and ‘a public health crisis’.
The Shame and Stigma of Addiction is Dangerous
Once considered taboo and controversial, the conversation on drug addiction has gone mainstream. The FBI and DEA produced the film to serve as a conversation starter in communities and churches to make clear this opiate epidemic ruin lives and destroys families and communities. It leads to homicides, overdoses; and prescription drug abuse can happen to anyone at any time.
“These stories are real,” warned Lynch. “Help us carry this conversation beyond this room, beyond this week, talk about this with your classmates, friends, family and peers to get them the info they need to be safe.” Suggesting an all-hands approach includes cooperation among families, friends, law enforcement, and communities. “We will not stop until we end this scourge…we have a birthright of freedom from addiction here in America.”
Reefer Madness 2016
The documentary opens with remarks by Jim Comey, Director of the FBI and Chuck Rosenberg, who runs the DEA.
They tell the viewer to expect unscripted interviews and stories of tragedy. “Most are good people, with good childhoods, with one wrong turn – and once you’re hooked, it’s so hard to get off these drugs,” said Comey. Rosenberg added, “we want you to talk to your family and friends, if you know someone using or thinking about using drugs – say something.”
“They all say it started with marijuana,” said one FBI agent on camera.
A montage of stories without faces begin to take shape as three addicts say they started using marijuana.
“I didn’t care, I didn’t think about it,” says a female voice, “I started smoking pot as a teen and took prescription pills.”
“It started for me with pot and progressed into hell,” said another.
A third voice began saying, “Weed didn’t do it for me, but it started it for me.”
The film interviews former addicts and their struggles throughout their drug use and leading up to it. Two prescription pills and a glass of wine, “it just triggered something in my brain and I’d say I became addicted that day,” said one woman.
Another woman interviewed from behind bars went off on medical marijuana. The film cuts to a video of people passing bongs. “Oh it’s legal now? Oh fuck off.”
The Price of Addiction
Stealing, pawning, prostitution, running away; drug abusers said they would do anything for their next high. “It affects all of America,” said Comey.
Each day 44 people die of an overdose on prescription drugs.
Following the documentary, the heads of the two federal bureaus came to the stage for a question and answer session. The FBI explained that while drug enforcement is not their specialty, it’s everywhere. “We see the pain and toll of this everywhere,” explained Comey. “It aligns with our professional responsibilities.” He said he sees the opiate and heroin epidemic in America echo in much of their cyber extortion work, sex trafficking, and gang work, among other reverberations.
Opiate abusers start with prescription opiates. Another Schedule I drug is cannabis, and according to the structure of the active compounds of the plant – and according to science – it’s not an opiate. The lack of context around cannabis use in this 2016 film evokes the irrational, unscientific group think that prohibited the plant in the first place, thanks to national campaigns against the “evil weed”, like the film ‘Reefer Madness’.
Mentioning ‘pot’ and ‘marijuana’ in this 2016 educational video produced by the government is reminiscent of the same scare tactics used in the film ‘Reefer Madness’. That movie was released in 1936 and has been widely criticized for its outlandish depiction of the ‘devastating effects’ of cannabis. Many blame ‘Reefer Madness’ for contributing to the government-sponsored, anti-marijuana propaganda of decades past.
I’m Not Here to Defend Them
One well-spoken man approached the mic to ask the agency officials why the DEA was banishing Kratom to the Schedule I classification of the Controlled Substances Act. “Kratom is used for some as an alternative – an opiate reliever, to withdraw from opiates,” the young man asked, so why is it being labeled as a drug with no medical use and a high threat of addiction?
The head of the DEA replied, Kratom is an opioid in its classification and the DEA ruled there is no medical value, and we are bound by its scientific ruling in that arena. “If we made an error, and perhaps some people think we did – I don’t think so…then we aired on the side of protecting the public and I’m okay with that,” said Rosenberg. Only 15 deaths have been reported and most involved another drug.
Big Pharma and their role in America’s opiate supply and heroin addiction was also called into question. “They make a lawful product,” said Rosenberg, “I’m not here to defend them, and I’m not here to denigrate them.”
Kratom will be scheduled alongside cannabis as a Schedule I substance about a week from now.
You can watch the screening, including the entire documentary and the question and answer session here.