While America's war on drugs has been waged for decades against illegal narcotics like heroin, cocaine, crack, and marijuana, a larger, arguably more dangerous culture has been building around prescription drugs that are similarly addictive, relatively easy to obtain, prescribed by well-intentioned doctors, and covered by insurance.
"America represents 5 percent of the world's population, but we consume 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs," says documentary director Chris Bell, whose new film Prescription Thugs, out now on VOD, examines the "collective impact" of pharmaceutical abuse. What starts as a baby reaching for a pacifier, Bell says, eventually turns into a kid reaching for a toy, a man reaching for a cigarette, a bottle, a set of dumbbells, or some other habit with diminishing returns.
Unlike illegal drugs, an Rx lives in a gray area that we consider safe. The people who open up to Bell about their addiction throughout the film aren't stereotypical junkies. They're friends, housewives, and Bell's brother Mike, a WWE "jobber" who died in a rehab center in 2008. Bell even turns the camera on himself after he's forced to take an extended break to deal with his own abuse.
"We're told certain drugs are bad, but the ones that come in these little circular orange cases are good," explains the film's producer Peter Billingsley. "The doctor printed your name on it, so we're not conditioned to see this as a problem. But when you're empowered to ask questions and demand answers, you find there’s information out there. A lot of the time, the answer is, 'I don't need this pill.'"
Many of us assume that prescriptions have gone through a complicated process — approved by the FDA and vetted by our doctors. But the film breaks down the ease with which some drugs can be pushed through the system, and the lack of knowledge doctors often have when peddling free samples from their reps. "In this country, who do we trust more than our physicians?" Billingsley asks. "So of course that’s who we should ask."
The problem, the film posits, is that when the system breaks and a person becomes an addict, a cycle of blame ultimately gets pushed around to everyone and no one. Patients blame "Big Pharma" for creating the drug. The pharmaceutical company blames the doctors for incorrectly prescribing them (despite their initial advertised push), and both blame the end consumer for not understanding what they’re putting in their bodies, or not having the will to stop once addiction sets in.
"If you're going to blame anybody, you have to blame everybody equally so we can equally solve the problem,” Bell says. "It's on the doctors, people taking it, and the pharmaceutical company. We have to attack it from every angle."
Instead of pointing fingers, Bell and Billingsley hope the film can jumpstart a conversation the same way Bell's first film, Bigger Stronger Faster*, forced people to consider the effects of steroids and exercise culture. And the same way that our culture's collective understanding about smoking and fast food have grown through similar films, campaigns, and other media over the last 20 years.
"It was a massive undertaking to actually get people to know that smoking's bad for you," Bell says. "We had to stop and say, 'This is killing people. Make sure everybody knows.' That's all I'm asking for with prescription drugs."