How serious is the opioid epidemic in America? On Nov. 16, Dean David Weil of the Heller School of Social Policy and Management and the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion of the film “Warning: This Drug May Kill You” in the Wasserman Cinematheque. The HBO documentary takes a harsh look at the stunning effects of the opioid epidemic in America.

“Warning: This Drug May Kill You” opens with a list of facts about opioid addiction: physical addictions to opioids can occur within five days, more people die from opioid overdoses than from car crashes today, and the United States consumes 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone supply. 

The story begins when Stephany Gay is prescribed oxycontin and vicodin for kidney-stone pain. She begins by taking them as prescribed, but when she runs out, she fakes her pain to get a higher quantity prescription. Quickly, she finds herself going through an entire month’s prescription in two days. When she approaches her doctor seeking help, he continues prescribing her even stronger drugs. Finally, suspecting her of abusing the prescription, the doctor cuts Stephany Gay off completely. Desperate, she starts buying oxycontin from her friends, but this proves too expensive. Seeking a cheaper option, she turns to heroin, which can get her ten times as high ten times as quickly.  

In an on-camera interview, Gay says that she “felt like superwoman [when she was high on heroin] and it was a lot cheaper than buying 15 narcos a day.” She also admits that it “felt like it [heroin], loved me and I loved it back… It felt like we were in a relationship.” She soon got her younger sister, Ashley Gay, involved in taking prescription pills and shooting heroin. Ashley Gay’s addiction escalated quickly, as most addictions do. She switched from pills to cocaine and eventually to heroin. Both sisters shot up heroin every day for almost a year. 

Before becoming addicted to heroine, Stephany Gay had a husband, a beautiful daughter named Audrey, a lovely home and two cars. A year later, she had been through a divorce, lost custody of her daughter, sold her cars and moved in with her mother. Worst of all, Ashley Gay ended up overdosing while alone in a motel room. By the time she was discovered, she could not even be resuscitated. Stephany Gay says that losing her sister was “the worst nightmare anybody can have.” After that, the family never recovered. 

Sprinkled throughout the rest of the film are hopeful moments. Stephany Gay  tries to pull her life together by entering rehab clinics. But just as it appears that Gay is recovering, her attempts fall short and she relapses. Gay is far from alone in her continuous struggle. As the films shows in the end, the opioid crisis in America has claimed the lives of over 183,000 people between the years of 1999 and 2015.

So what can be done about this crisis? Following the screening, there was a panel discussion with Perri Peltz, director of “Warning: This Drug May Kill You,” Marylou Sudders, the Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of Opioid Policy Research at the Heller School, the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative and medical consultant for “Warning: This Drug May Kill You,” and Myechia Minter-Jordan M.D., president and CEO of the Dimock Center. Senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News Cynthia McFadden moderated the discussion. 

Peltz began by saying that the primary objective of her movie was to dispel the misunderstanding that only “bad kids are using bad drugs — that’s not how it happens… Addiction is a brain disease.” She said that addiction is a lifelong struggle and going to a 30-day clinic once or twice will not cure a serious addiction.

Kolodny spoke about the physiological effects opioids can have. He explained that this “epidemic is fueled by the overprescribing of drugs, not bad behavior.”  He also spoke of the “pill mill” doctor population, referring to the groups of doctors whom he believes are overprescribing opioids. Sudders, who works on the legislative side of opioid addiction, said that she drafted legislation to fund school nurses to screen for recreational prescription drug abuse, requiring that all prescribing schools (e.g. medical  school, dental school, etc.) offer a class in the harmful effects of addiction to medication. Since this legislation passed,  Massachusetts has seen a 29 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions in the past two years, making the state a leader in the fight against the opioid epidemic. 

Soon, the discussion turned toward the role of race in opioid addiction. The film only featured stories of white people because, as Peltz explained, “the vast majority of people we came across during our ‘casting’ were white.” Kolodny added that the “new epidemic is disproportionately white.” He hypothesized that this may be because doctors prescribe narcotics more cautiously to their non-white patients. 

In the end, each panelist gave their own ideas for how to solve the crisis. Peltz said that “treatment itself isn’t good enough anymore.” She suggested a full scale, multi-step treatment plan for those affected. Kolodny agreed with Peltz, stating that long-term out patient care has proven to be the most effective treatment method. Sudders’ ideal treatment plan included strict legislative reform paired with making oxycontin illegal in America. Minter-Jordan said that the opioid issue needs to be talked about in schools. Ultimately, everyone on the panel agreed that, as Minter-Jordan put it, “having the conversation [about addiction and how to safely use prescription drugs] early and often” is the key to success.