Inside the FBI: Chasing the Dragon
February 5, 2016
An FBI-produced documentary draws attention to the prescription drug and heroin epidemic in the United States.
Mollie Halpern: The abuse of prescription opioids and street heroin and the resulting overdose deaths are an epidemic in America.
Shane Dana: When you look at the death toll from opiate addiction, it’s major war level. I mean, we're at war here, and the statistics show that. It’s absolutely staggering.
Halpern: Drug abusers try to achieve the same feeling they had when they first got high.
Trish: Just like your first time riding a roller coaster or your first time falling in love. That first feeling of good that you get from something—you don't ever get it again, and it goes for the same with drugs. You don't ever get that feeling again.
Halpern: The pursuit of that unattainable high can be expressed as “chasing the dragon.” As Americans are learning through this epidemic, without the help of law enforcement, rehabilitation experts, centers, and others, the dragon cannot be tamed.
I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and you’re listing to Inside the FBI. In this episode we get some straight talk from the mouths of those who experience first-hand the dark, dangerous, and devastating drug culture.
We’ll hear about the FBI’s new approach to combat the crisis and how teens, their parents, and educators can participate.
FBI task forces already work aggressively to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises like violent street gangs and transnational cartels that illegally distribute prescription drugs and heroin. The FBI’s health care fraud squads investigate dirty doctors and pharmacies.
We’ll also learn where people can go for help.
But before all of that, we’ll begin with Trish, who sat down with me to share her story and that of her daughter, Cierra.
Trish and her family settled into a middle-class neighborhood in Virginia. Cierra was thinking about going to college to study nursing or marine biology.
Trish: She was a very normal, motivated child. She was AP classes, A/B honor roll. Very involved in school functions. She was a competitive cheerleader. She competed all over the United States. Very smart, very motivated.
Halpern: Dirty needles. Burnt metal spoons. Amber prescription bottles.
These are images that come to people’s minds when they think about the drug world. For many parents like Trish, that world seemed far away from home.
Trish: Honestly, I had no idea my daughter was an addict. I had no idea my daughter was on drugs until I think her first arrest.
Halpern: That arrest happened when Cierra was just 17 years old. She was using the prescription drug oxycodone for non-medical uses. Most first-time abusers of painkillers get them from friends or relatives. Trish thinks a friend likely introduced Cierra to the pills.
Trish: I was shocked, and I thought, "No, you have the wrong child. You know, it’s not Cierra," because Cierra was never in trouble.
I felt empty, and then I started to feel guilty and loss, like I had done something wrong. Where did I fail? How did I not see this?
I work from home, so I'm home all day. You know, my children were not latchkey kids. You know, I was home when they went to school. I was home when they got home. I was home when they were home with their friends. I felt lost, ashamed, confused. Scared for my daughter.
Halpern: Despite the arrest, Cierra continued to chase the dragon. Addiction had its hold on her. She even started dancing at a strip club to pay for the drugs.
Trish: If it was not nailed down in our house, she took it to the pawnshop. Debit cards, she would write checks. Anything that belonged to me. She stole from her brother, her grandmother.
Halpern: The mother and daughter who had never argued were doing exactly that. The child Trish raised to be respectful became defiant and out of control.
Trish: When they're like that, there’s no reasoning, there’s no talking. They are the devil. I don't even know how to explain the character that this stuff brings out in people. It was the most vicious, ugliest, harmful, hurtful behavior that I would not imagine from anybody, much less my child.
Halpern: Trish put Cierra in several rehabilitation facilities, but drugs continued to consume Cierra’s life.
Trish: I remember Cierra telling me—because I used to ask her, I don't understand it. Why? You know its poison. She says, "Mommy, it calls to me." She says, "It calls to me." That’s how powerful this is. Knowing that it’s bad and it’s awful and it’s dirty and it’s hurting everything and everyone you love. That voice was stronger than any love or support or anything her family could give her.
Halpern: Then one day, as a last resort…
Trish: I called and had my daughter arrested. I called her PO (probation officer) and said that she is out of control and she is going to kill herself.
Halpern: During her 10 months in jail, Cierra participated in a drug treatment program. She was finally clean. Trish wanted to keep Cierra that way and intended to send her daughter to a live-in rehabilitation center soon after her release from jail.
Six days after Cierra’s release…
Trish: She was in her bedroom. I was downstairs cooking dinner. She asked to use my car to go get some cigarettes and I said of course. You know, she was doing well, we were getting along and didn't think anything, and she came home and she gave me a kiss and said she was going to go upstairs and wait for dinner. Dinner was done and I called her and she didn't come and I went upstairs and opened her bedroom door, and she had OD'ed in her bedroom while I was seven stairs down in the kitchen.
Halpern: Cierra had overdosed on heroin.
Trish: She was laid out. The syringe and everything right next to her, and eyes wide open.
Halpern: Cierra was 22 years old.
Trish: No parent should bury their child. No parent should bury their child. A part of me is gone, and it will never come back. And I don't want any other parent to ever feel that or go through that. Because you learn to get by, but it doesn't go away.
Halpern: One thing did help ease Trish’s pain and provide some closure—the person most culpable for selling the heroin that led to Cierra’s death is now behind bars.
Information from county police helped the FBI track down evidence that led to the person’s arrest and subsequent prosecution. Throughout the process, Trish and FBI Special Agent Shane Dana of the Washington, D.C. Field Office developed a rapport.
As part of a health care fraud squad, Dana uses specialized training, techniques, and tactics to investigate counterfeit prescription drug rings and fraud schemes. The squad also investigates prescription drug diversions—which is the redirection of pharmaceuticals from legal sources to other locations where they’ll be unlawfully distributed and used. Sometimes these cases involve dirty doctors.
Dana: We've seen entire communities decimated by poor conduct from a medical provider. We've seen entire graduating classes of high schools just destroyed by bad medicine.
Halpern: Dana has worked drug cases for more than a decade and says law enforcement sometimes feel it’s like walking on a treadmill.
Dana: You keep making arrests, you keep trying to address the problem, but, inevitably, it keeps springing up.
Halpern: Wanting to stop the treadmill, Dana thought about how the FBI could mitigate the opioid epidemic with another strategy. In addition to catching the bad guys, he pondered about a way to prevent high school students from becoming addicted to opioids. He wanted to give them a reason to think twice before trying opiates, because it only takes once to get addicted.
Dana: In order to do that, you have to get ahead of that curve. You've got to get in front of people actually experimenting with opiates
Halpern: The idea for the documentary Chasing the Dragon was born. The FBI would produce it to provide teenagers with an inside look of the downward spiral of opiate addiction through testimonials of abusers and their families.
Dana: When we thought about doing the film, I immediately considered Trish because she was able to articulate a perspective that I think is very important for everyone to understand, especially parents, about remaining vigilant and being involved with their children and the potential consequences of not.
Trish: Addicts are very manipulative. They can hide everything. It’s not always so loud and in your face. It’s covered, and they cover it very well. You have to pay attention. And if my story or Cierra’s story can save just one and stop just one, that’s why I did it.
Halpern: Like Trish, others who were interviewed selflessly shared their stories with hopes to prevent others from destroying their lives and those of their loved ones. Their stories are raw, honest, and unscripted. Some are laden with profanity, and all of them can be upsetting, painful, and disturbing to learn. But that’s the point.
The intent of Chasing the Dragon is to bring awareness to the prescription drug and opioid epidemic and to drive home how deadly of a problem this is in our country. The goal is to reach high schoolers before they experiment with drugs. That way they don’t reach the same point as Melissa—she’s one of the addicts who appear in the documentary who contracted a staph infection from dirty heroin.
Melissa: When the doctors cut my leg open to clean it out, um I had maggots in my leg—they were eating the rot, the infection. That wasn’t enough for me to quit. As I was admitted to the hospital, they gave me a pic line, which is an IV line. I had the dope dealer come into the hospital and shooting heroin into my IV line
Halpern: FBI Director James Comey and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chuck Rosenberg appear on camera before the documentary begins. Director Comey…
Director Comey: We’re talking to you today because we are facing a crisis—a crisis that is killing far too many people.
Halpern: The two go on to provide perspective to the problem with sobering statistics. Each year more than 46,000 people die from a drug overdose. That’s more people than die from car accidents or from gun violence. And half of those 46,000 deaths are related to opioid abuse.
The Bureau partnered with educators to develop a discussion guide to complement the 45-minute documentary. The products will be distributed to each of our 56 field offices across the country for FBI representatives to make them available to high school administrators or resource officers who are interested.
The DEA will also distribute the documentary. Administrator Chuck Rosenberg….
Chuck Rosenberg: After you watch this film, we want you to talk about it. We want you to talk to your parents, to your relatives, to your friends, to your brothers and sisters.
Halpern: Both men urged persons hooked on drugs and those who love them to seek help, before it’s too late.
Trish emphatically echoes their directives.
Trish: Go to your parents. And if not your parents, an older sibling, an aunt, an uncle, a guidance counselor, a principal, a teacher that you're comfortable with at school. Anybody that can help give you the first step in a direction of where you need to be.
Halpern: Resources for treatment are available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Division of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You can find them online at https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/. Or you can call 1-800-662-HELP.
Other resources are available through the DEA websites www.getsmartaboutdrugs.com and www.justthinktwice.com. The websites are designed for parents and teens, respectively.
Chasing the Dragon is available at www.FBI.gov.
You can listen to this and three other FBI-produced podcasts on iTunes and https://www.fbi.gov/news/podcasts.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Inside the FBI. I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau.