There have been countless moments when I’ve thanked the Powers That Be that I have alcoholism and not any type of addiction to prescription drugs, particularly when sober friends tell me horror stories about having to kick pain pills while also detoxing from alcohol. Sometimes it seems I am one of the lucky few that did not form an addiction to Adderall, Xanax or Codeine, all drugs I’ve had the (brief) pleasure of knowing. My former habit of being intoxicated daily is a great indicator that I could have easily fallen prey to another addiction; I just never learned to use the doctor’s office as a veritable stop-and-shop for all those real or imagined maladies that ailed me. As it turns out, I would not have had to try too hard to add other addictions to my portfolio: roughly 75% of the world’s prescription drugs are filled right here in America.
Now we have someone who’s set out to expose the truth, and he does it beautifully. Prescription Thugs, the latest film from former power weightlifter-turned-documentarian Christopher Bell, covers America’s destructive love affair with prescription pain pills. The film features interviews with Congressman Ted Lieu, former drug sales representative Gwen Olsen, psychiatrist David Healy and former wrestler Matt “Horshu” Wiese, among others. Each of their accounts demonstrates the addictive and deadly quality of prescription drugs advertised by Big Pharma.
Bell is no stranger to covering controversy, particularly when it comes to addiction. His first film, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (2008), was about steroid abuse and our need to strive for perfection in America. In both films, he and his brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, become the central focus. Tragically, a short time after Bigger Stronger Faster* was released, Mike overdosed on prescription pain pills. And, while most compelling films have a twist, Prescription Thugs has a uniquely shocking one: as the movie unfolds, Bell discovers that he, too, is a prescription pain pill addict.
I recently got the chance to talk with Bell about his film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently earning rave reviews.
Lucy: What was the most surprising thing for you to learn when you were making this film? I sure as hell was surprised to see some of this.
Chris Bell: The most surprising thing for me was that I found out I was a drug addict. I was lying to Congressman Lieu about getting drugs off of Craigslist years ago when the truth was that I had just done it that week.
Another thing that surprised me was I interviewed the founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu in California and he ended up being the one who helped me get into rehab. The whole thing went full circle. When I was really bad and taking Xanax and drinking, I sort of had an intervention with my family and they flew me and my girlfriend to Sacramento. Cliffside Malibu took me in right away and comped me for my stay. The owner said, “I knew you were messed up when you first interviewed me but I couldn’t say anything to a man who is trying to do something so good for society.” I was like, “Wow, that’s really noble and cool.”
This film saved my life.
Lucy: In your film, there is a particularly intense scene where this pharmaceutical rep describes her troubling inner conflicts about being a rep. She describes how her niece committed suicide after going cold turkey from several different prescription drugs she became addicted to after a bad accident. The rep’s account was chilling.
Chris: Gwen Olsen was kind of amazing. She wrote a book about pharmaceutical sales from her experience of 15 years working as a rep, so I knew she would be the best person to talk to about this.
That is the brutality of this. Drugs aren’t really tested enough: a pharmaceutical company only needs two positive placebo tests [to get something approved]. The rest of the studies can be buried. The public never knows what the real side effects are. The studies that show the negative side effects can be pushed aside and the positive studies are the ones that get publicized.
Lucy: What do you want people to take away from your film?
Chris: I want people to be responsible. Don’t ask your doctor, question your doctor. People don’t really ask what the side effects are; they just take the prescription and go home.
Everyone needs to know about this. The Big Pharma companies sponsor every piece of literature that comes out to the public about these drugs. You can’t get any unbiased information unless it’s from an investigative reporter. For the most part, anything you read about Lyrica or Vicodin or whatever drug doesn’t matter. You’re getting that info from the pharmaceutical companies. It looks all pretty. Big Pharma cites journals like The New England Journal of Medicine. Guess who pays for those studies? The pharmaceutical companies.
When I was younger, I would read those journals and say, “Oh it’s in there, it’s gotta be true.” It’s hard to know what’s bullshit. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.
Lucy: Luckily for us, your doc is not bullshit. Who would you consider the thugs?
Chris: I came up with the title first before I shot the movie. I was talking to Chris Masters, who got sober after he was kicked out of the WWE. Athletes get hurt, we get these drugs and then we feel better while getting addicted. Nobody really cares because they are all prescription things. And I said, “We should make a movie about it.”
Lucy: What do you want to see happen with your film?
Chris: I would love to organically change the game with educational films and have documentaries like this shown in schools. I want this movie to go everywhere. Every educational film I saw in school is now used as a joke in my movies. They are so badly done that nobody listened to them.
Lucy: I just want to take a minute to say I am really sorry about your brother.
Chris: My brother went so far downhill with the prescriptions. He tried a few times to get sober. We didn’t even know anything about sobriety.
That’s the point of this movie. I don’t want somebody else’s brother to die. I don’t care how much money this makes, I just don’t want someone else to go through this. This movie saved my life and I want it to save other people’s lives. I want to get it out on ITunes or Showtime. It’s a message everyone should see. It’s an important film. I would like to go speak about these things.
Lucy: As a former politico, my ears perked up when I heard your film begin to take a political slant.
Chris: Yeah, we have a bad situation. Why not start a cocaine lobby? It’s ridiculous for all these things to happen and politicians to take money from them. I get confused because I’m like, is it “Just Say No” or “Ask Your Doctor”? It’s like The War on Drugs isn’t really a war because politicians don’t make money off of drugs like cocaine. It’s like it’s The War on Drugs…that we can’t make money off of, unlike Big Pharma, which makes a huge profit.
Lucy: You definitely succeeded in exposing the truth about the situation.
Chris: I just told the facts—how many people lobby and how many people die of these things. We did the math on it. Big Pharma spends upwards of $400,000 per Congressperson to lobby. There are things that we can do: we can ask about the side effects. We have to be responsible for our own health and be conscious of what we put into our systems. There are a lot of people I talked to about drug abuse. There are like 30 or 40 people [in the movie]talking about the same thing. It’s not just one person. Everyone I talked to had a story. It affects everyone’s life.