Opioid use has reached epidemic levels in the U.S. over the past few years, leading many policymakers and communities to search for ways to combat the overwhelming issue. The problem is so serious that the Trump Administration declared opioid use a “national emergency” in 2017. According to CNN, more than two million Americans are dependent on or abuse opioids, in the form of prescription pills or illegal street drugs. In 2017, more than 49,000 overdose deaths were opioid-related.
And as more and more families are affected by the opioid epidemic, Hollywood has taken note. Various Hollywood films that shed light on opioid addiction and its repercussions have been released in the last year, or are currently in production. Films such as “Ben is Back” and the upcoming “Dreamland” help illustrate the prevalence of opioid addiction in modern America, albeit in very different ways.
“Ben is Back” focuses on one family’s struggle with opioid addiction and the bad decisions an addict often makes in order to get their fix — at any cost. “Dreamland,” based on a nonfiction book by Nicholas Jarecki, is more wide-reaching, with settings that span from small-town Ohio to the U.S.-Canada border, through which the cartel is smuggling fentanyl. Both films effectively owe their existence to the meteoric rise in opioid use in recent years.
Drug Abuse on the Big Screen
The film industry has never shied away from putting a spotlight on drug addiction. Drug abuse makes for a juicy storyline as well as flawed characters with issues to overcome, helping fuel the plot. And films about drug abuse and addiction have a tendency to get noticed during awards season, as exemplified by Nicolas Cage’s Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the severely alcoholic Ben Sanderson in 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas.”
During the mid-1990s and early 2000s, several movies about heroin abuse were released, although opioids had not yet reached national epidemic status. For example, 1996’s “Trainspotting” followed the misadventures of a group of Scottish teens who use heroin, but their camaraderie and antics almost make their drug use seem fun, despite serious repercussions including the overdose death of one member of this group.
Conversely, “Requiem for a Dream,” released in 2000, paints a brutal picture of heroin addiction, with all three main characters falling deeper into despair and isolation as the film progresses. While the film was nominated for an Academy Award, “Requiem for a Dream” didn’t do well at the box office, likely due to its graphic nature. It was originally released with a rating of NC-17.
Chronic Pain and Addiction
One aspect of addiction that remains widely ignored within films, however, is the underlying causes that can lead to drug abuse. In “Trainspotting,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “Ben is Back,” the characters are already addicts when we meet them, with little to no explanation as to why or how they became addicted to heroin in the first place.
For many, opioid addiction, whether in the form of heroin, morphine, or prescription pills, starts with the management of chronic pain. In the U.S., an estimated 25.3 million adults suffer from chronic pain, which equates to about 11 percent of the population. Chronic pain is defined as pain that is ongoing, lasting for at least 12 weeks, and that impacts an individual’s daily life. While there are a number of treatment options to help manage chronic pain, including CBD oil and physical therapy, prescription pills remain the go-to solution among most healthcare professionals.
According to Healthline, doctors write 259 million prescriptions for painkillers on an annual basis. Yet the majority of patients living with chronic pain do not find relief from their symptoms using prescription medication alone. This often leads many with chronic pain to take medications in amounts beyond that which was prescribed, or to turn to illegal street drugs in order to find relief, further risking their health.
Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic
By definition, most movies that tackle the subject of drug abuse are dramas, and few end on a happy note or offer alternatives to addiction. Perhaps that’s because opioid addiction is so difficult to overcome. “Ben is Back” at least explores the dangers of leaving rehab too early, but inpatient rehab is just one of the many methods currently being used to help combat the opioid epidemic.
With the Trump Administration now setting its sights on Big Pharma and its role in America’s opioid crisis, the epidemic is being targeted at the source. The President’s plan to curb opioid addiction also includes awareness campaigns and the expanded access of Naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses.
Along with Naloxone, other pharmaceutical solutions potentially exist. Suboxone, which contains naloxone and buprenorphine, has shown promise in reducing opioid misuse, studies indicate. The drug is a schedule III narcotic, should not be used in combination with any other opioids, and is most effective when used long-term for maintenance treatment of opioid dependence.
Potential solutions to opioid addiction have yet to make a major appearance on the big screen, but that may change as opioids continue to make headlines. For now, films such as “Ben is Back” and “Dreamland” are at least bringing a human touch to this national epidemic.