Between ubiquitous overdose videos and an onslaught of headlines, heroin seems to be everywhere. But Warning: This Drug May Kill You, which premieres Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival and on HBO May 1, is the one thing I would urge everyone to watch, especially if you’re in the minority of Americans who don’t already know someone scorched by the opioid epidemic that is killing nearly 100 people a day. The reason: Director Perri Peltz makes you get what these people—sisters, friends, colleagues—are up against. She helps you see the arm instead of the needle.
One of the most gripping stories Peltz follows is that of Stephany Gay, a young woman who was prescribed Dilaudid, Vicodin, and Oxycontin for kidney stones when she was 16. After the pain wore off, she got hooked on the meds and shared them—as she shared everything—with her older sister, Ashley. Eventually Stephany’s doctor cut her off, and she discovered that instead of spending $75 a day scoring pills, she could get a bag of heroin for $10 that would last three days. The sisters went from snorting heroin to injecting it. And they loved it. Until Ashley fatally overdosed. Completely shattered, Stephany resolved to get clean. She told her mother, “I couldn’t imagine putting you through losing another child.”
Six weeks later Stephany relapsed. Peltz takes us into the intimate spaces of her journey—the bathrooms and bedrooms she uses in, her mom’s kitchen table, her little girl pointing to the Narcan on the shelf, reciting what to do in case Mommy ODs, and the repeated attempts at rehab. You want desperately for her to make it.
The sisters’ story is a textbook case of this epidemic: More than 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription opioids. (In 2007 Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about OxyContin’s addictiveness and agreed to pay more than $600 million in penalties. Yet the drug is still a huge seller.) “All the people in the film started with legitimate prescriptions from doctors,” says Peltz. “This is not a problem we can dismiss as ‘bad people abusing good drugs.’ These are good people who have been swept up in an addiction epidemic.”
A growing body of research suggests that these drugs are so powerful they actually change the brain. Cold turkey is often simply not enough. “For people who simply detox, the relapse approaches 85 percent at six months,” says David Fiellin, M.D., one of the top experts in the field at Yale University School of Medicine. His studies, along with many others, show that medications like methadone and buprenorphine can greatly increase the chances of recovery. “Unfortunately, many rehabs across the country believe that you shouldn’t replace one drug with another drug, and that you’ve just got to tough your way out of it,” says Peltz. “We heard over and over and over again, families saying they were told to let their loved one, their child, their mother hit rock bottom, and boy, do they wish now—and they say this—‘I wish I had hugged them and loved them the whole way through.’ This is not a disease of morality; this is a brain disorder.”
Peltz also wants people to wake up to the risks of taking prescription opioids casually. “Maybe two months after we started filming,” she says, “I took one of my boys to the emergency room for a very bad sore throat. After about six hours, he was doing much better, and the doctor sent him home with a prescription for 30 Percocets. So here was a perfectly competent, well-intentioned physician who legitimately wanted to make sure my son was not in pain. But 30 Percocets? That’s a lot. And in the hands of a college student, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
After she spent a year and a half in the trenches, Peltz’s biggest takeaway? “This isn’t something that happens to other people,” she says. “Because what I really learned, and from the bottom of my heart, is that we are the other people. This is happening to all of us. It’s happening in our own homes, it’s happening in our families, it’s happening to our friends. I never gave my son the Percocets. But I have three boys. I’m not naive—they’re all in school and these drugs are around, and I just hope beyond hope that they resist those temptations, because this is playing with fire. These drugs are just that dangerous.”
On – 27 Apr, 2017 By Liz Brody