A Glimpse Into the Human Toll of Opioid Addiction

Nobody sets out thinking they’re going to be a needle user.

Maybe you’re in pain or had a bad day and a friend hands you a pill, saying, “Here, this will help.”

“That’s how this problem always starts,” said Dr. Deeni Bassam, a board-certified anesthesiologist and pain specialist, in the FBI documentary “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict.”

“There’s very little difference between oxycodone, morphine, and heroin. It’s just that one comes in a prescription bottle and another one comes in a plastic bag,” Bassam said.

FBI special agent Andrew Lenhart said he always asks addicts which is the most addictive drug they’ve tried.

“And without a doubt, 100 percent of the time, they’ll say the most addictive drug is oxycodone,” he said in the documentary.

“The best thing that can happen to someone who is addicted to oxycodone is that they can be arrested. The best thing is they get arrested and go to jail. Everything other than that is worse—it’s going to end in a bad way.”

In an average week in America, around 308 people die of an overdose from prescription painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 28,000 people died in 2014 alone.

The FBI promoted the 45-minute documentary, jointly produced with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), during Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, Sept. 18–24.

The personal accounts provide harrowing insight into the destructive nature of opioid addiction.

The Human Toll

All quotes and personal stories are from “Chasing the Dragon,” the FBI and DEA’s documentary about opioid addiction in the United States, released in February. Watch the documentary at: fbi.gov/ChasingTheDragon


Katrina. (Courtesy of the FBI/screenshot)
Katrina. (Screenshot via FBI)

Katrina was a corporate account executive earning about $122,000 per year.

“Things were pretty secure financially, [the] kids were happy, we had no real issues.”

Then one night she fell down the stairs and hurt her back. The next day, a work colleague, who used to be a pharmaceutical sales rep, gave her some pain pills and told her to take one.

But when she got home, she took two.

“I didn’t even know what they were. I took the two, had my glass of wine, and all of a sudden it just triggered something in my brain and I would say I became addicted that day.”

Katrina said there is no distinction between a heroin addict and a pill addict.

“We both will do anything to get it—break the law, do whatever. You’re both addicted, you both go through the withdrawals. …It’s the exact same thing.”

She got to the point of taking 40 pills a day just to function.

“I was ill, like literally every four hours the chills started setting in. … I woke up sick. And that’s the way it went all day long.”

Katrina ended up in court in November 2011 for writing prescriptions. The judge gave her the maximum sentence of two years.

“At the time I was so angry. In retrospect, I’m very thankful because I know [with] 100 percent certainty, I would have gone right back out and done it again.”

While Katrina was in jail, her daughter Kirstyn started doing prescription pills with her friends.

“I had no idea. I just thought it was my problem. And she said, ‘Mom, you don’t have any right to talk. Look at you.'”

Kirstyn became addicted within months of taking opiates and died from an overdose at the age of 20, while Katrina was in jail.

“You can’t go back and say I’m sorry, or set a better example or talk them out of it.

“The spiral down is so fast, it doesn’t take much. I lost everything.

“I had never been in trouble in my life. I am now a felon at 41 years old.”

Two years later, Katrina continues to honor her daughter by advocating for young people who are at risk of drug abuse.


Cory. (Courtesy of the FBI/screenshot)
Cory. (Screenshot via FBI)

Cory said he had a great childhood, but by 17, he was addicted to opiates.

The drugs ran his life, he said.

“They took my mind over and made me do things that I was brought up not to do. And it just turned me into a monster.”

By the end, he wasn’t taking drugs to get high, but instead to just function and stave off debilitating withdrawal. “I’d always save a bag for the morning time, so when I wake up I could get well. I call it that because in the end, I wasn’t using to get high anymore, I was using to stay well, so I wasn’t as sick.”

Cory started stealing from his family and friends. Some friends were using heroin because it was cheaper than OxyContin.

“So of course I got into it. It grabbed me.”

Looking back, Cory said he would do everything differently, if given the chance, starting from not touching that first pill.

“It’s not worth it. It’ll take you to hell and back, and if you’re lucky, you’ll make it back.”

After a relapse, Cory sought treatment and has been clean for over two years.


Melissa. (Courtesy of the FBI/screenshot)
Melissa. (Screenshot via FBI)

Melissa was 22 with a newborn daughter when a doctor gave her OxyContin.

Two refills later, her prescription was up and she had to buy it on the street.

Melissa worked at a daycare and drove the children to school on the bus. But before she could function at work, she got high.

“I was in the bathroom of the daycare crushing up pills, snorting them, so I could go about my day.”

She eventually turned to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to find.

“I could get a whole lot more for a whole lot less. And once I shot up the heroin, that was it from there—my addiction took off. My daughter was seven months old.

“Heroin became the love of my life. I put heroin before my family.”

Melissa’s husband said he would stop putting gas in the van so Melissa couldn’t go buy drugs. So she ran away from home.

“I lived in crack houses and it’s almost like something you see on TV, an abandoned building with drug paraphernalia everywhere. There might be a [pee]-stained mattress and god knows what else is on it. There was actually a place in the city that we were at and a lady had overdosed in the bathtub. She died, she was still in the bathtub.”

Instead of having the body removed, Melissa said she and the other addicts just used another room in the house.

Then she got an abscess on her leg. When the doctor cut it open to clean it, there were maggots inside.

“They were eating the rot, the infection. That wasn’t enough for me to quit.”

The day Melissa overdosed, she shot heroin into her jugular vein.

“Instantly it killed me. When the ambulance got there, they gave me a shot of Narcan and I was non-responsive. They had to use the defibrillator.”

When she woke in the hospital, she unhooked all the IV lines and walked right out. She drove straight to see her dealer.

“I showed up with the gown on and all these things stuck all over me, the IV in my arm. And … he sold me heroin.”

To clean up, she said it took serving time in jail, missing her mom’s funeral, and missing her children grow up.

“I want to be that loving and caring mom that my mom was to me to my girls. I don’t want them to hate me, to resent me. I don’t want them to be embarrassed by me anymore.”

Melissa is out of prison and active in drug treatment programs and support groups. She is working to rebuild a relationship with her family.


Facts About Opioids in America

“Each year, more than 46,000 people die from a drug overdose. That’s more than die from car accidents or gun violence,” said Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator for the DEA. 

Over half of those deaths are opioid-related.

  • In the 1960s, more than 80 percent of opioid abusers got hooked on heroin first.
  • In the 2000s, 75 percent of opioid abusers started with prescription opioids.
  • An estimated 1.4 million people abused a prescription pain killer for the first time in 2014.
  • Most first-time abusers of painkillers obtain them from a friend or relative.
  • Nearly all people who use heroin also use at least one other drug.
  • People who take prescription painkillers can become addicted with just one prescription.
  • More than 10 million people aged 12 and older reported nonmedical use of prescription opiates in 2014.
  • Approximately one in five high school seniors reports misusing prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime.
  • Each day, 44 people die from an overdose of prescription painkillers.
  • More than 93 percent of those identified as needing treatment for dependence or misuse of an illicit drug believe they do not need help.

Sources: SAMHSA, 2014 NSDUH, CDC, JAMA Psychiatry 2014, Vital Signs, MMWR 2015, SAMHSA, 2013 NSDUH, Monitoring the Future, 2014.



If you or someone you know needs help for an opioid addiction:
Call the helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Get online resources: SAMHSA.gov

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