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‘Chasing the Dragon’ screenings highlight the risks of prescription drug abuse

Last week at the Blaine National Sports Center, a group of teens, parents, community members and medical professionals gathered to watch a screening of “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict,” a documentary film that takes a closer look at the personal impact of opiate addiction. 

The event, which was promoted by Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services, was part of the Chasing the Dragon Initiative, a statewide series of screenings and panel discussions aimed at raising awareness and generating conversation around opioid addiction in Minnesota. Panelists included Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson; Jeffrey VanNest, FBI media coordinator; Dustin Chapman, behavioral health liaison, Fairview Behavioral Health Services; and Kent H. Bailey, Drug Enforcement Agency assistant special agent in charge.

“The idea of these events is to reach people where they live,” VanNest said. “We try to pull from the community so that the speakers understand the unique local issues. In Blaine, we featured different partners. Many of our panelists had professional affiliations. We also had a local mother who lost her son to addiction a couple of years ago. The goal was to spark a conversation about what can be done about this crisis in the community.”  

Swanson was the evening’s keynote speaker.

“She is spearheading an initiative aimed at stopping prescription painkiller abuse called ‘Dose of Reality,’” VanNest said. “During the panel, she had an opportunity to talk about her work with that program and how it can help people in Minnesota.”   

Hard realities

Chasing the Dragon Initiative meetings center around the screening the 50-minute documentary film, which was produced in 2016 at the behest of FBI Director James Comey in a partnership between the FBI and the DEA

“’Chasing the Dragon’ is focused on the opioid epidemic, particularly prescription painkiller abuse,” VanNest explained. “It is posted on YouTube, so anyone can watch it for free. The idea is that the FBI and the DEA will host these screenings like the one that was held in Blaine in different communities around the country. We are trying to start conversations and activism.” 

The film, with its gritty, moving real-life stories, is a far cry from the campy anti-drug classics  “Reefer Madness” or “Scared Straight!” Chapman said.

“I see a lot of these types of films,” Chapman said. “I’m old enough to say I saw some of them growing up. This film is extremely well done. It really demonstrates the continuum of addiction. It highlights each of the subjects’ lives. It doesn’t pull any punches. The people the film follows don’t all have happy endings, either. It’s very realistic, and because of that it always generates a lot of questions from the audience.”

With a goal of drawing as many uncensored questions or comments as possible, event organizers passed out blank cards at the beginning of the Blaine event so that audience members could write anonymous questions that were later passed to the panelists. 

“This freed participants up to ask more pointed or personal questions,” Chapman said. “If audience members have to raise their hands and speak up in front of everyone, the questions can be a little less personal.” 

Audience comments ranged from personal stories about prescription drug abuse to concerns about teen abuse of the ADHD drug Adderall.

“The questioner wanted to know where those kinds of drugs fit into the prescription drug abuse problem and why they aren’t talked about as much as drugs like Oxycodone,” Chapman said.

Organizers reported that around 100 people attended the event. Chapman said he felt that the post-film discussion was productive and informative: “From an awareness standpoint, these kinds of meetings are every beneficial. They give participants a clearer view of the issues, and give them an opportunity to hear from other community members about how their lives have been affected.”

Focus on youth

“Chasing the Dragon” focuses on several people whose lives were overtaken by prescription drug abuse. Most of the featured people began their addictions at a young age, many with casual marijuana or alcohol use that moved to prescription pills and then, when it became too difficult or expensive to access the pills they desired, to heroin. In one-on-one interviews, subjects discuss how their lives were torn apart by their addictions, and how drugs caused the death of their loved ones.

The film’s “raw” feel is intentional, VanNess said: “Some of the young folks featured use very colorful language. As you watch the film, think about the high school kids we are targeting. It tries to shock them into taking this crisis seriously. This is why the FBI and the DEA think this is a good idea to present the stories in this raw and unfiltered way.”

“Chasing the Dragon” is designed to attract young people, VanNess added, because the vast majority of addictions begin before age 18.

If young people can hear the stories of people like them, youth with promising futures whose lives fell apart after they started abusing prescription drugs, Chapman said, maybe they will think twice before using any mood-altering substances.

“From my standpoint, the thing that most impresses me about the film is that the majority of the opiate addicts highlighted said that their drug history started when they were quite young with marijuana or alcohol,” he said. “In some ways the stage was set by these substances. As they as they got into their later teens and early 20s, they had progressed to serious opiate abuse.”

Marijuana and teens

One topic of discussion at the Blaine event was the increasing availability of marijuana for Minnesota teens.

“When I was on the panel the other night is said that marijuana is often seen by parents and young people as a harmless drug,” Chapman said. “As a drug and alcohol counselor, a lot of times parents who know that their child is smoking marijuana will say to me, ‘At least they are only smoking weed and not using opiates.’ I’ll say, ‘It is a continuum. Drug use often starts with drugs like marijuana or alcohol and then it progresses.’ That’s one of the messages of the film.”

“Chasing the Dragon” screenings have been held across the state, VanNess said, including in Rochester and at the Mall of America. Chapman will be part of a panel focused on opiate abuse on April 19 at Andover High School. The panel discussion was part of an Anoka-Hennepin School District series on teen substance use that also featured screenings of “Chasing the Dragon.”

“We’re planning on doing more of these events this spring,” VanNess said. “The focus for the next several events will be on high schools in the metro area. We want to zero in on this age group, because we think we can make a real difference there.”  

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