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.