If you or someone you know is hooked on prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, or street drugs like heroin, you’ll connect with “Chasing the Dragon,” a raw 2016 documentary about the horrors of drug addiction.
Produced by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the film features ordinary Americans sharing personal stories of danger and destruction that characterized their lives prior to recovery from hard-core drug addiction.
Because the documentary is filled with harsh language and disturbing images, parental discretion is advised.
In 2015, 52,404 Americans died from drug overdoses; 33,091 of them involved an opioid and nearly one third of them, 15,281, were by prescription.1,2,3 Meanwhile, kidney disease, listed as the 9th leading cause of death on the CDC’s top 10 list, killed 48,146.4
The CDC does not include drug overdoses on this list, but if you did, drug overdoses (63 percent of which are opioids), would replace kidney disease as the 9th leading cause of death as of 2015.
Many of those featured in “Chasing the Dragon” are regular people from good homes and loving families. The one characteristic they had in common while using was a feeling of powerlessness to escape the spiraling cycle of drug use and abuse that dominated every moment of their lives.
One recovering addict, a woman named Melissa, had this to say about her drug use: “It became my full-time job. The needle was my boss — a very demanding boss.”
To prevent you or someone you love from becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, I’d like to take a closer look at opioid abuse and offer several healthy alternatives to help you manage pain.
How Bad Is Prescription Drug Abuse in the US?
A 2015 study5 suggested 1 in 4 Americans who use opioid painkillers become addicted to them. Despite the drugs’ high risk of addiction, a 2016 NPR health poll6indicated less than one-third of people said they questioned or refused their doctor’s prescription for opioids.
Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, recommends you discuss with your doctor any concerns you may have about receiving a prescription for narcotics.
Due to their highly addictive potential, it’s important, she says, to ensure such drugs are your best and only option:7
“Ask why. Often other alternatives, like not [taking] anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy or something else can be effective. Asking ‘why’ is something every patient and provider should do.”
Wen’s concerns are well placed. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),8 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on opioids in 2014.
On average, more than 1,000 of them land in emergency rooms every day as the result of abuse or misuse of prescription painkillers.
“There’s very little difference between oxycodone, morphine and heroin,” says Dr. Deeni Bassam, board-certified anesthesiologist, pain specialist and medical director of the Virginia-based Spine Care Center. “It’s just that one comes in a prescription bottle and another one comes in a plastic bag.”9
Bassam, whose views on drug addiction are presented throughout “Chasing the Dragon,” believes most drug dependency starts innocuously:10
“A friend offers you something at a party or at home. Or you’re having a bad day, and you need something to pick you up, so somebody hands you a pill and says, ‘Here, this will help you feel better.’ That’s how this problem always starts.”
Deborah Taylor, senior vice president and executive director of Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization operating in 10 U.S. states, notes:11
“The progression of addiction and the behavior that comes with it is pretty standard regardless of where you’re born, how much money you have, how old you are and your race or nationality.
You can be the smartest person in the world — and the minute that chemical hits your bloodstream, you lose control of what it does in your body. You can’t control it. Nobody can control it. I don’t care who you are. It’s not controllable.”
From Prescription Opioids to Street Drugs
The transition from prescription opioids to street drugs like heroin is a relatively easy one. When a prescription runs out, the cost to renew it becomes unmanageable or a physician refuses to renew a prescription, many addicts look for other options.
Heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to obtain than opioids, is a popular alternative. Chemically, the drugs are very similar and provide a similar kind of high. Without additives, heroin is as dangerous as Oxycontin and equally addictive. However, when dealers cut heroin with other drugs, the results can be deadly.
According to the Chicago Tribune,12 in just six days during August 2016, a staggering 174 heroin overdoses took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that records, on average, 20 to 25 overdoses a week.
The Tribune13 claims the unprecedented number of overdoses was precipitated by heroin cut with carfentanil, a drug originally developed as a tranquilizer for large animals such as elephants. Cut into heroin, it was meant to deliver a stronger and more extended high, which would presumably keep users coming back to buy more.
Instead, it resulted in a string of overdoses and deaths that left law enforcement begging local citizens to not buy heroin until the ultra-potent batch was off the streets. Their advice made sense considering carfentanil is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than morphine…