The absurd true story of how Florida flooded the country with pain pills

The absurd true story of how Florida flooded the country with pain pills

Today’s headlines are about heroin and fentanyl, but there’s a remarkable new CNN documentary to remind us all that the opioid crisis has roots in the US pharmaceutical industry.

“American Pain” documents a very specific time period when a group of young men opened pain clinics in South Florida and, with the help of doctors and pharmaceutical companies, flooded the country with addictive pain medication and got rich in the process.

The film is bizarre and will leave you wondering how, exactly, this could actually have happened. It charts the rise and fall, in particular, of Chris and Jeff George, twin brothers obsessed with bodybuilding, who somehow became prescription drug kingpins.

The film also documents how authorities ultimately built legal cases against the owners of pain clinics with undercover work and help from informants who wanted to stop the pain clinics.

I talked to the director, Darren Foster, about how he came to tell this tale of absurdities.

The film was many years in the making. He first met the George brothers in 2009. He had been researching the opioid crisis in Kentucky, where a sheriff showed him pill bottles from Florida. That led him to the South Florida pain clinic.

At first, the brothers literally chased him away from the clinic. Within six months, they would be targets of the biggest prescription drug investigation in US history.

After their prosecution, Foster convinced the brothers and a surprising number of other people to take part in the film. Excerpts of our phone conversation are below.

This story is incredible. How did you get these people to open up?

WOLF: How did you get from a moment of confrontation, with the brothers chasing you down the highway, to interviewing them in prison?

FOSTER: I basically told them that I thought their story was interesting because I thought it was, on some level, an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry.

The George brothers weren’t an anomaly. There were other clinic owners. “Pill Mill Vinny” – Vincent Colangelo – who was still on probation for heroin trafficking when he opened a clinic. Zach Rose, who was 23 at the time, who was operating a grow house growing marijuana and trafficking cocaine when he opened up his first clinic.

These are the guys that the pharmaceutical industry thought it was good to partner with to distribute pills. I thought that by telling their story, it would show on some level that while these guys went to prison, the pharmaceutical industry, on some level, got away scot-free.

Doctors and pharmaceutical companies did not take part

WOLF: There are certainly no interviews with people from the pharmaceutical industry in the film. You don’t talk on camera to doctors who were involved. Was that an intentional thing, or would those people just not talk to you?

FOSTER: Yes, exactly that. When you make a film, you have to figure out what the constraints of the film are. And the constraint of this film, in my mind, was always I wanted it to be in first person for the people who either perpetrated this conspiracy or the people who were on the front lines of investigating how to bring it down.

That included, obviously, the George brothers and other clinic owners and people who worked in the clinics, and then the local law enforcement and the federal law enforcement agency agencies who were there to sort of put the case together.

Of course, I definitely wanted to interview the doctors and reached out to every doctor who was involved in “American Pain.” They all just decided that they did not want to take part in this whatsoever.

And same thing with the pharmaceutical industry, especially the pharma reps who supplied them. I reached out to several of those people who I was able to identify, and none of them wanted anything to do with the documentary.

We had the advantage that I was able to get, through a Freedom of Information request, all the wiretaps from the case, the undercover video and a lot of documents, and I think that helps illustrate the entire ecosystem that allowed these clinics to operate.

The George brothers didn’t have medical degrees. They weren’t writing prescriptions. They had a bunch of doctors who were willing to do that for them. They didn’t give any individualization of care. They broke basically the same script for everybody that walked through the door.

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