The faces on the screen are a cross-section of suburban America. One is an eagle scout. Another is a cheerleader. There’s a mother of an infant child and a corporate account executive clearing six figures a year.
All abused prescription painkillers, a common trait that has them appearing in a new documentary, “Chasing the Dragon,” produced at the behest of FBI director James Comey. The searing film featuring testimony from overdose survivors is part of a revamped effort by the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to address a health crisis that they say has quietly destroyed countless lives and kills tens of thousands of people each year.
Comey, who took a personal interest in the film’s development, is scheduled to meet with educators and administrators from school districts in the Washington region Thursday to talk about an increasingly dangerous trend among youths: the abuse of prescription opiates such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet.
Even more worrisome, FBI officials said, is the concern that the addiction that begins with pills from household medicine cabinets often leads teens to the heroin syringe.
“This epidemic does not discriminate,” Comey said in a statement to The Washington Post. “All across this country, it is taking good people from good homes and leading them down a trail that often ends in pain and sadness.”
The topic of drug abuse has become an element of both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns, with candidates describing heroin addictions as a health crisis. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spoken at length about addiction as a disease and called for reforming aspects of how the justice system treats drug abusers.
“We need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them,” Christie said in November while campaigning in New Hampshire.
The new film begins with a stark observation: FBI and DEA research shows that about 46,000 people die from drug abuse annually in the U.S., more than the combined number of Americans who are killed in car accidents and because of gun violence. Half of those deaths are related to opiate drug abuse, according to federal data cited in the film.
The cause for alarm at the FBI is the rocketing number of deaths from heroin, which often is a cheaper alternative on the black market to brand-name prescription drugs. In 2014, heroin overdose deaths peaked at 10,000.
“The numbers are appalling and shocking — tens of thousands of Americans will die this year from drug-related deaths and more than half of these deaths are from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses,” said Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. “You will see in ‘Chasing the Dragon’ opioid abusers that have traveled a remarkably dangerous and self-destructive path. I hope this will be a wakeup call for folks. Please pay close attention to this horrific epidemic. Help reverse it. Save a life. Save a friend. Save a loved one.”
Part of the deadly surge can be attributed to an effort by pharmaceutical companies to tamp down on the abuse of prescription painkillers. In 2010, the FDA approved a new formulation for OxyContin designed to turn the powerful synthetic drug into a gel when mixed in a syringe.
But the medical breakthrough came with what federal officials say is a perverse side effect: in the past decade alone, the number of new heroin users has doubled.
The documentary’s title comes from a slang term for heroin use, and it is how one drug abuser describes his addiction on camera.
“You’re constantly seeking that first high,” he said. “What’s going to happen if you catch it?”
The FBI and DEA plan to distribute 10,000 copies of the new video to all of its 56 field offices for nationwide classroom educational use. The video was specially produced with teenagers in mind and includes tearful interviews with recovering addicts who started using in high school; rather than pushing the sobering data to parents, the FBI hopes to make a personal connection with the kids.
“This film may be difficult to watch, but we hope it educates our students and young adults about the tragic consequences that come with abusing these drugs and that it will cause people to think twice before becoming its next victim,” Comey said.
One of those victims was Cierra Marie Vallejo, who was an AP student at Woodbridge High School when she dropped out, turned to exotic dancing to feed her habit and served time behind bars before overdosing on Feb. 18, 2013. She was 22.
The story of Cierra’s life, told with raw honesty by her mother, Patricia Vallejo, serves as one of the cautionary tales of the FBI documentary.
Shane Dana, a special agent with a health care fraud unit based out of the Washington field office who investigated Cierra’s death, said that her case shows that addiction can “happen to anyone.”
Cierra was once a competitive cheerleader, her mother said in an interview.
“She was the one they threw into the rafters,” Vallejo said.
Petite, with silky dark hair, Cierra also served as a church volunteer, one time appearing at mass in her cheer outfit complete with makeup and glitter.
“She was just a ball of sunshine,” Vallejo said. “Just angelic. And you can’t look at her and not think the world of her.”
Cierra’s sudden downward spiral came in high school and stunned everyone who knew her.
“It’s something I think about everyday to this day: where did it go wrong? What happened,” Vallejo said. “I cannot tell you and that’s something I’ll never know.”
Her first hint perhaps came when Vallejo saw her daughter’s mood rise and fall at the slightest irritation.
“You just think it’s normal -- it’s hormones, it’s growing up,” Vallejo said. “She would just lie and manipulate and twist and turn.”
Then came the felony conspiracy conviction after she went to local pharmacies to fill fake prescriptions on a physician’s pad one of her friends stole. The signs of her addiction soon became more obvious, including discarded needles strewn about her bedroom.
“She’d say, ‘Those aren’t mine,’ and I’d believe her,” Vallejo said. “She was petrified of needles. That’s how powerful — these things make you do things you’d never do.”
Dana, who said he has interviewed about 200 people addicted to opiates, said that Vallejo’s experience “is not uncommon. ... These are typical stories.”
Frustrated and afraid, Vallejo ultimately called her daughter’s probation officer and arranged for Cierra to be taken to jail.
“She was telling me, ‘How could you put me here?’” Vallejo said, recalling a video-call she had with her daughter at the Prince William County jail. “I told her, ‘You put yourself there, your choices, what you’re doing put you there. If I can get more time out of you by putting you in jail, that’s my job as your mother.’”
Cierra participated in a rehab program and was released after serving seven months, on Feb. 12, 2013.
“She was happy and clearheaded,” Vallejo said.
On the night she died, Cierra left the house to fetch Marlboro menthol cigarettes from a nearby gas station. When the trip took longer than expected, Vallejo thought nothing about it, she said. Cierra came through the door, kissed her mother on the cheek, grabbed a banana and headed up the steps to her bedroom, while Vallejo cooked her daughter’s favorite meal, Swiss steaks.
At one point Vallejo heard a thud, but she said she thought it had been Cierra’s brother practicing skateboard tricks upstairs. When she finished preparing dinner, Vallejo hollered for the kids to come down, but Cierra didn’t appear. Vallejo climbed the 17 steps toward her daughter’s bedroom door and found her on the floor, her arm splayed beside her limp body and her eyes wide open.
“I pushed on her chest and heard that last breath,” Vallejo says during the FBI documentary.
Cierra had been home from jail for six days. She was buried a week later.
Dana helped trace the drug that killed Cierra to a Prince William man who had been selling prescription painkillers he’d obtained through Medicaid; he had been dealing heroin on the side. He was convicted and is serving a 76-month prison sentence.
A Wisconsin native, Dana had served as a National Guard infantry officer before joining the FBI. He now examines the drug trade as a battlefield creeping into high school classrooms.
“I ask people: ‘How’d you get addicted?’” Dana said. “The stories that I would hear were typically very similar.”
Dana said that teens start by popping painkillers — little pills the size and shape of a Tic Tac — before developing a tolerance that requires a more powerful dose, leading many to heroin. Dana has seen the devastating results of that transition too many times.
So Dana and his squad decided to lead the production of “Chasing the Dragon” with the intention of providing an insider’s view of the opioid epidemic. Many of those interviewed in the film are addicts that Dana helped arrest. As his personal reminder of heroin’s toll, Dana carries a photograph of Cierra with him.
“I keep it in my wallet and have shown it to many people when I get into discussions about the realities of opiate addiction,” Dana said. “It is helpful to remind people that the statistics have a face.”
Vallejo said that she is glad that Cierra’s story might help prevent another teen from straying down her path. Vallejo said that she wishes her daughter were still alive but believes her addiction was a force even more powerful than a mother’s love.
“I sleep soundly at night,” Vallejo said. But “everyday it’s a struggle to get up and get out of bed. Everyday it’s hard to smile, to laugh. ... It never goes away. It will never go away.”