I’ve always loved documentaries, and I’ve watched several over the years. From good documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans and Bowling for Columbine, to mediocre documentaries like HBO’s Beware the Slenderman, and weird documentaries like the 2007 documentary, Zoo. HBO has certainly produced documentaries that I would refer to as remarkable, such as Thin; Hookers at the Point; Ebola; Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison; Risky Drinking; Pimps Up, Hoes Down (part of the America Undercover documentary series, which included Real Sex, Taxicab Confessions, Dope Sick Love, and Autopsy); and Abortion: Stories Women Tell. However, the network’s 1-hour documentary on opioid abuse in America, Warning: This Drug May Kill You, doesn’t include the depth, interviews, data, or impartiality that should be present in a documentary on the important topic of drug abuse. As uninformative as it is, Warning:… did prompt me to reflect on one thing: Americans response to the increase in opioid induced deaths in comparison to their response to the countless lives lost due to crack cocaine and meth use.
Personal Responsibility, Caution, and Blame
Warning: This Drug May Kill You seems to place the blame for prescription opioid addiction entirely on health care providers. I found it extremely unfair that the aired version of Warning:… didn’t include interviews with any physicians or emergency room staff members to discuss opioid abuse or overdoses. Emergency room physicians can only go by the information a patient, or anyone accompanying the patient provides them. If a patient says they’re in excruciating pain, they have to treat it. Opioid addicts who seek prescriptions via hospital emergency rooms often lie about the extent of their pain, the cause of their pain, whether they have a history of drug abuse, and even their names and other identifying information. I also had a huge issue with Warning: This Drug May Kill You’s failure to thoroughly illustrate the fact that not everyone addicted to prescription opioids became addicted because they were prescribed painkillers for legitimate health reasons. Some opioid abusers, such as the now deceased Ashley from the first segment of Warning:… began abusing her sister’s prescription painkillers because she was curious and enjoyed the sensation of getting high.
I started having debilitating migraines when I was a teenager back in 2000. The pain was so bad it rendered me bedridden for nearly 4 months, and unable to care for myself or my son. I was prescribed muscle relaxers and a high dosage of the non-habit forming painkiller, Ibuprofen. Because I was being prescribed pain medication both my mother and I ensured that I would not be prescribed any habit-forming drugs. We asked the doctors questions about my prescriptions, and to this day when I’m prescribed pain medication I specifically instruct my physicians not to prescribe me any habit-forming painkillers, such as Oxycontin or Vicodin. Why do I do this? Because I don’t trust that my health care providers won’t prescribe a medication that could endanger my health, and because my health is as much my responsibility as it is my treating physician’s.
I’m not excusing the actions of doctors who recklessly prescribe highly addictive opioids in large quantities, or the money-grubbing pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the drugs. However, caution must be appropriately exercised by the teenagers and adults who are being prescribed painkillers, and patients and their loved ones must at the very least be responsible enough to conduct research on these medications, and read the drug side effects that are issued along with the prescriptions.
Americans Are Now Sympathetic to Those Struggling with Addiction…but Only if They’re White Prescription Drug Abusers ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The U.S. government’s and public’s reaction to the opioid epidemic is the complete opposite of what it was to the crack and meth epidemics. When crack first began destroying families and lives it was a narcotic that primarily plagued impoverished and minority populated neighborhoods. As a result, the U.S. government’s response was not to supply addicts, the loved ones of addicts, schools, or community agencies with any form of medication to be used in an effort to prevent death by overdose, as they are currently doing with Narcan to combat opioid overdoses. Instead the U.S. government’s response to the crack and meth epidemics was immediate arrest and long prison sentences. I was a child throughout the ’80s and most of the ’90s, but my memories of those petrifying decades are crystal clear, and trust me, crack and meth addicts weren’t receiving opportunities to be treated at drug rehabilitation facilities in lieu of jail. There were no programs like “The Way Out”, a drug rehabilitation program mentioned in Warning:… which enables an addict with drug paraphernalia on their person to go into a police station and be placed in a drug-recovery program without being charged with drug possession. Back then there was absolutely no sympathy for the crack smoker or the meth user from the U.S. government or many Americans, just as there seems to be none today.
This rush to aid opioid addicts, as well as the epiphany that anyone can fall victim to drug addiction, and that perhaps addicts could benefit more from a treatment program than a long prison sentence is astonishing to me. I strongly believe the reason for this newfound concern is because those affected by this new opioid epidemic are predominantly white people from middle and upper class social standings, like those featured in Warning: This Drug May Kill You, because this sympathy was and is nowhere to be found when poor blacks and whites die from crack, meth, or heroin overdoses. Where’s the compassion for them and their families? When I see article titles that read: ‘“Warning: This Drug May Kill You” Shows the Human Side of Heroin’, or ‘Six Degrees of Heroin—This New Film Shows It’s Not “Other People”’, the message is plain to me: “These drugs aren’t just killing the refuse of human society, they’re killing people who matter!” I’ve neither read nor seen an article about the “human side of crack addiction.”
Whether the dealer’s a doctor or someone from the neighborhood with priors, addiction is addiction and drug abuse is drug abuse. The death of an upper or middle class citizen due to prescription drug abuse shouldn’t be any more “heart-rending” than the death of a poor person from a housing project or a trailer park who died from a crack, meth, or heroin overdose. No one wants to admit that this opioid epidemic is being handled in a manner that is totally contrary to how the crack and meth epidemics were handled by the U.S. government, or that the U.S. government and its citizens pick and choose which drug addicts deserve leniency and support, and this was something I needed to acknowledge.
In the End…
Warning: This Drug May Kill You is a half-assed rushed attempt to air a documentary about an issue that is becoming increasingly more visible, and affecting more and more lives each day. It is not a good documentary, which is extremely disappointing because HBO can and has given us better documentaries on all forms of addiction. It also angered me that this documentary was not impartial, but biased. It minimized the personal accountability of the drug users in favor of blaming their continued drug abuse on medical professionals, while not allowing viewers to see and hear accounts from those who prescribe opioids to treat pain. It’s essential to hear both sides of the argument in documentaries, which is one of the reasons HBO’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell is so fantastic. If you’d like to see a great documentary on prescription drug addiction, watch the episode of MTV’s True Life documentary series, True Life: I’m Addicted to Meds. This is an 8-year-old episode and a mere 47 minutes long, yet it’s a far superior and edifying documentary on prescription drug abuse than Warning: This Drug May Kill You.