A few dozen teachers sat in an auditorium at Westmont High School last week and watched a tale of darkness: seven people, three of them incarcerated, speaking on video about the depths to which their opioid addictions had taken them.
Such cautionary tales have long been a staple of drug education, but these had an unusual provenance: The video was a co-production of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, agencies known for busting dealers, not instructing teens.
The video, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, is available online, and the FBI and DEA are trying to get schools to incorporate it into their lesson plans. It’s a sign that the feds are adding new tools to their law enforcement responsibilities in the face of America’s opioid epidemic, FBI Chicago Special Agent in Charge Michael Anderson said at the Westmont High screening.
“We need to pick up our game on prevention, and this documentary is just one step in that direction,” Anderson said.
The movie offers the accounts of people — some young, some middle-aged, almost all of them white — who got hooked on pain pills and heroin. Their stories follow a similar arc, with experimentation or a legitimate prescription leading to addiction and ruin.
“At one point, I had an abscess in my leg that was so bad I had a staph infection,” said a heroin user named Melissa, her remembrance paired with stomach-turning visuals. “My leg was four times its normal size. When the doctors cut my leg open to clean it out, I had maggots in my leg. They were eating the rot, the infection.”
The stories illustrate some of the possible consequences of opioid abuse, including death. But some who viewed the video at the Chicago Tribune’s request wondered whether the graphic accounts would really get through to young people at risk.
Certainly it’s very emotional; I can see the appeal of it from that perspective. But there were so many things that stood out as more of a scare-tactic approach, which we know isn’t that effective.
Vilmarie Narloch, Illinois psychologist and trainer of drug counselors
“Certainly it’s very emotional; I can see the appeal of it from that perspective,” said Vilmarie Narloch, a Skokie, Ill.-based psychologist and trainer of drug counselors and board member for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “But there were so many things that stood out as more of a scare-tactic approach, which we know isn’t that effective.”
Indeed, research into prevention programs has often shown that messages meant to dissuade risky behavior can unwittingly encourage it.
A 2008 study that scrutinized anti-drug public service announcements found they actually aroused teen curiosity about drugs. Dan Werb, director of Toronto’s International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, made a similar observation in a 2011 research review.
“Some of these PSAs and social marketing campaigns can actually change people’s social norms to be more accepting of drug use, because they believe everyone around them is using drugs,” he said. “They start asking themselves, ‘If they’re all using, why aren’t I?’ ”
Narloch said messages about the gruesome wages of drug abuse can be overridden by real-life experience.
“What has happened historically is that a person (exposed to the message) will think, ‘I try this drug once and my life will be destroyed,’ ” she said. “But maybe they’ll see a friend or family member try the drug and not have that experience, and that discredits all of the information they’ve gotten.”
Kathie Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University drug researcher and advocate for the “harm reduction” approach toward drug abuse, said some of the consequences outlined in the video — going to prison, using toilet water to shoot up, getting infections from dirty needles — are caused by the criminalization and stigmatization of addiction, not the addiction itself.
“This isn’t about having an opiate use disorder,” she said. “It’s about how we don’t care about the health of people who have those disorders.”
FBI public affairs adviser Michael Kulstad said the documentary is not meant to be a stand-alone, all-encompassing education about opioid abuse, but a warning of what can happen.
“My hope is that (teens) will think twice, remember how fast the downward spiral was,” he said. “Is someone going to drop over from their first pill? I don’t think that’s the case, but they should understand the power of it, how addictive it can be. Maybe if someone offers them something at a party, the little voice in the back of their head that will remember that.”
Watch the full documentary at bit.ly/FBIdoc.