Prescription Thugs (2015)
Director: Chris Bell, Josh Alexander (co-director), and Greg Young (co-director)
Writer: Josh Alexander
Cinematographer: Greg Young
by Jon Cvack
I had finished Bigger, Stronger, Faster only a few weeks ago and was blown away by director Christopher Bell’s ability to use his own personal life to explore steroids. Still, it left you wondering how he’d continue his filmmaking career, as given how close his family was to steroid use, with both Christopher and his brother using the drug, there couldn’t possibly be another story there.
During the making of Bigger, Stronger, Faster we discover that beyond steroids, Christopher and his wannabe-wrestler brother Mike Bell (aka Mad Dog) were both addicted to opiates, with Mike actually dying from the addiction only a few years after releasing the first film. What could have easily offered plenty of tears and maudlin moments instead was an objective assessment of what happened and how the habits formed.
Bell examines the ways in which America is the only first world country that allows Rx advertising to consumers, brought about through Reagan’s deregulatory era. Yet while opiates is the film’s catalyst, Bell examines how this form of advertising has extended beyond the pain med and caused many individuals to head to their doctors and get some antidepressants or stimulants. We live in an era where the value of an individual is largely based on what and how much they have, and with the proliferation of social media, in which people filter the best moments of their lives, forcing others to compare those filtered moments with where they are and what they’re doing, there’s a chronic feeling of inadequacy. Combine these factors with the recent speculation that opiate addiction is a side effect of a stagnant or ailing economy - where the jobs and opportunities which provided the material things that could allegedly make us happy are no longer easy to attain - and you can see the vicious circle we’re stuck in.
It doesn’t help that doctors are often lobbied to push the drugs, where the drug companies offer them free samples to push to consumers, who if effective, will then demand an actual prescription. To those who wonder why doctors are so liberal in their prescriptions – whether opiates, amphetamines, or anti-depressants - one doctor says it best, in that who’s he to say that someone isn’t in severe pain, severely unhappy, or unable to focus? In fact, many older doctors were told that there was little danger in opiate use while in medical school, as the studies are often completed under questionable circumstances, and only recently are receiving the proper investigations that shed light on the dangers.
One former Rx Salesman compared herself to a drug pusher, offering free tastes in the hopes of hooking the consumer. Bell compares the compounds in opiates and amphetamines to their street counterparts - heroin and cocaine - discovering that they’re essentially bred of the same chemical origin and yet one set is legal and the other’s not. Thus, as absurd as the Salesman’s logic seems to be, though with far more in common with the drugs than otherwise, it’s no wonder her passion is driven toward enlightening individuals. Pharmaceuticals are one of the most profitable businesses in America. With the recent acquisition of Daraprim - shooting the price up from $13.50 to $750 overnight, and with the acquisition made by a young 30-something kid who sees no moral objections to his decision, forcing many ill people to have choose between their health and economic welfare - some argue for us to open our borders to allow generic drugs from foreign countries in order to drive up competition and drive down prices. Very capitalistic, right? Except that would clearly prevent drug companies from selling their product with extravagant mark ups, knowing that they own the exclusive rights, and that sick people will pay for it.
When Bell admits to his own addictions, showing various damage to his rather new Dodge Durango, all brought about while high on prescription drugs, and that his addiction was brought on during a hip surgery, exacerbated by his brother’s death, we see that no one is immune. Recently, one of the documentaries subjects, Richard Taite, President of the Cliffside Malibu Rehabilitation Center, was on Real Time and discussed that while opiates might feel good, they’re far more effective as an antidepressant. Combine this with a man who answered the question of “What does heroin feel like?” on Reddit, we see that - at least, initially - it’s not some extravagant feeling as seen in the films, so much as offering a very ‘nice’ feeling, in which all the problems, anxieties, or issues you might be experiencing suddenly vanish. You just feel ‘nice’ and everything else is ‘nice’, except quickly it starts taking more and more to experience that nice feeling, spiraling the addiction into the intensity we’re now serving. When compared to the aforementioned economic issues and liberal prescription of the drug, it makes perfect sense why so many would turn to it. They’re unhappy, feel unsuccessful, working harder than ever before and for less in return. The drug that initially mitigated their physical pain eventually evolved into mitigating their psychological pain. Thus, the solution unfortunately seems to extend beyond prescription reform, and toward repairing a broken system. But that’s another issue and for another documentary.
Prescription Thugs is another great film by Chris Bell, showing that he’s able to take the Michael Moore common man approach to storytelling and extend it toward issues that personally affect him. I'm excited to see what he does next.
BELOW: Confessions of an Rx drug pusher
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