A film on the dangers and heartbreak associated with opioid abuse left some students at Helena High School feeling physically sick on Wednesday morning.
The documentary, produced by the FBI and the DEA, is scary, graphic and difficult to watch by design. Opioid abuse in the United States is an epidemic -- nearly 35,000 people died from an opiate overdose in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict” tells the story of seven people addicted to opioids. Some lose family members, destroy relationships with loved ones and ultimately die from the power of prescription opioids and heroin.
The screening, co-sponsored by the Missouri River Drug Task Force, Helena Education Foundation and Blue Cross Blue Shield, was interrupted midway so John Doran, a spokesperson at BCBS, could let students know some of their peers were upset and queasy, but would be alright. Once it was over, students asked questions to a panel of community members and were directed to tell an adult if they were struggling with the difficult content in the video.
Because an opioid addiction is nearly impossible to kick, the FBI and DEA is trying to educate people and hope they won’t ever start. The video features people from stable families and good jobs to convey how opiates can destroy a life with just one wrong turn or one prescription. It also brings awareness to the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug, the easy transition from legal prescription drugs to heroin and the accessibility of pills via friends and family members.
The people featured in “Chasing the Dragon” mostly started with marijuana and progressed to opiates. Some were injured and started with a legal prescription but got addicted. When an opiate addiction became too expensive, they started buying heroin.
“First time somebody uses an opiate drug, the euphoria that they get is, is, is something that they continue to search for and seek for,” Dr. Deeni Bassam said. “And nobody sets out thinking that they are going to end up being a needle user. But every one of those needle users will tell you that they couldn’t get the high anymore doing it the way they were doing.”
They talked about getting arrested, stealing, prostitution, prioritizing drugs over their own children and the never-ending vicious cycle of finding drugs to avoid withdrawals.
“It’s just something that I never ever want to experience again. It is the worst feeling ever. And I wouldn’t wish that feeling upon my worst enemy,” one man said.
Near the end, most people in the film relapsed despite the hardship opiates brought them. One of the women in the documentary spoke about Cierra, her 18-year-old daughter who spent seven months in jail on a drug charge. She died from a heroin overdose in her childhood bedroom six days after being released.
“It’s that powerful that you could spend seven months clean, clean and being educated on nothing but how to beat it, how bad it is for you, you know, all this, and you last six days,” her mom said.
After the movie, students texted questions to panelists who included Jennifer McCluskey, the mother of a Capital High School graduate who recently died from an accidental heroin overdose at age 21. It also featured Nikki Philips with Benefis Hospital, Bryan Lockerby with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, DEA Agent Stacy Zinn, addiction counselor Evonne Hawe and Attorney General Tim Fox.
Students asked about the warning signs and were told to look for changes in behavior, including appetite and sleep behavior. McCluskey said the changes in her daughter were drastic, and it “made my skin crawl to be around her.”
Fox answered a question on why no one is holding drug companies accountable and talked about efforts in Montana to join a lawsuit seeking damages to fund treatment and prevent dishonest marketing campaigns of dangerous drugs.
Philips talked about alternatives to opioids for pain, such as neuropathic medicine.
Zinn, with the DEA, said drug cartels are capitalizing on an affinity for prescription pills and creating their own. That means a pill that might have gotten someone high one time could have a different makeup and kill them the next time, even though they look the same.
“It’s like playing Russian Roulette,” she said.
Students at Capital High School saw the film on Tuesday. A community screening will take place in the Helena Middle School auditorium at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25. The entire film is also available on the FBI website.