This week, I had the pleasure of seeing Prescription Thugs, a documentary by Chris Bell (now available on Itunes) that tackles a subject close to my heart: drugs. The film has been getting a lot of attention (LA Times, Hollywood Reporter, Variety), no doubt due to its poignant look at what many consider a rapidly growing epidemic in this country—prescription drug addiction. And though people seem to be overdosing and winding up in rehab left and right, the gravity of the issue still hasn’t seemed to penetrate the collective consciousness. So the timing of the movie couldn’t be more perfect.
A Subject Close to Home
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I took my seat at the packed Laemmle Royal Theatre in West LA. Given the nature of the subject matter and the fact that the audience looked like they all just came straight from a token bad boy convention, I assumed they were my people; in other words, other addicts excited to see some truth exposed (it could also have had to do with the fact that Laemmle serves actual butter and not that fake oil crap). Since I write about alcoholism and addiction for a living, I figured the film would cover the emerging trend that anyone who is clean, sober or works in recovery knows all too well: the over prescribing of narcotic medication. But we got much more than that.
The filmmaker, Chris Bell, who drives the exposé in a very Michael Moore-esque fashion, kicks the door open with the death of his drug-addicted brother, former WWE Wrestler Mike Bell. This offers a visceral effect for the audience, especially for those who knew Mike from Bell’s first film, Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008), where he addressed performance-enhancing drugs in the world of competitive bodybuilding. Mike apparently overdosed in rehab shortly after the movie was released.
The Unlikely Drug Dealers
In Prescription Thugs, Bell does some great hands-on investigating, including personally meeting with former California Senator Ted Lieu, who he promptly schools on the ways to score drugs on Craigslist. Off Bell’s lead, Lieu actually holds a press conference asking Craigslist to remove the drug ads, the same way they did for prostitution. I found this to be pretty freaking impressive considering Bell is neither a zealot nor a public figure, but just some dude in a backwards baseball cap looking for answers.
My favorite source in the movie was a woman named Gwen Olsen, a former pharmaceutical rep who began speaking out about the legal drug business after her niece took her own life as a result of adverse effects of medication. Olsen even penned a tell-all book, Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher, and proved to be a compelling and creditable insider to the world of Big Pharma. She voiced what many of us have only suspected from tidbits of personal anecdotes we’ve picked up: that the pharmaceutical industry isn’t in the business of health care but the business of money. And many doctors, for the most part, aren’t much better, handing out free samples of new medication without really knowing what the stuff is.
Drug Du Jour
I have been on Lexapro, an SSRI anti-depressant, for 12 years now. When I was originally prescribed it back in 2004, I was under the impression that the suggestion to take that drug was based on the specific symptoms I had described to my shrink about my depression. I think this is what most of us believe: that you go to a doctor and he or she analyzes your condition and offers an appropriate medication. But the reality is, I was given Lexapro because it was the hot, new anti-depressant on the market and my doctor had samples. Perhaps there were kickbacks involved, I don’t know. What I do know is, if I had seen him in 1990, I would have been prescribed Prozac; in 1995, I would have been given Effexor or Paxil and in 2000, it would have been Wellbutrin. My point is that despite what we might think, we really aren’t getting individualized treatment for our ailments. When it comes to meds, it’s pretty much trial and error.
Speaking of anti-depressants, if I have any criticism of the film it’s Bell’s failure to distinguish between pharmaceutical narcotics and daily anti-depressant medication. While I understand his reasoning for lumping psychiatric and pain meds together—his point being that we are all over-medicated—it was frustrating to see a perfect opportunity to explain that all drugs are not created equal. I wish he had clarified for the audience that Oxycontin and Vicodin get you high and destroy families and lives, while all anti-depressants do, if they work on you, is make you not want to kill yourself. People do not get high off of SSRI or MAO inhibitors and I am always shocked that more people don’t know that.
There are some 12-steppers that preach taking any psychiatric medication is “not sober.” I have always chalked this foolishness up to the ignorance of people who don’t have a mental illness or the mentally ill who are obviously not taking their medication. But it’s this kind of uneducated dogma that shames people who really need anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers out of taking their medication. Did I mention that most of these drugs do not make you feel high? Just want to make sure I clarify that.
What I did think was really special about this film was through Bell’s exploration of the prescription drug problem in our country and how it’s affected his own family, he comes to grips with his own addiction and gets honest about it in the film. After several interviews with Richard Taite, owner of one of the top rehabs in the country, Cliffside Malibu, Bell ends up checking himself in there as a patient.
While something like this might be seen as strange faux pas, for a documentary about addiction, it was grace. Because what many people don’t understand is that the only people who can really help addicts are other addicts. Not to discount a normie who is a CADC or even a PHD but at the end of the day, we just don’t relate to people who haven’t experienced what it means to have a substance control you. And though I wasn’t happy to see Bell’s obvious struggle and shame around his own problem, I felt really good knowing that he knew exactly what he needed to do to get better.
Get Prescription Thugs on Itunes here