Ben is Back: The Film that Dares to Tackle the Opioid Epidemic

Chris Sullivan explains why the new hit film is must-watch for every school pupil and parent

Undeniably, the opioid/heroin epidemic sweeping the United States is the greatest drug endemic to ever hit the country. Indeed, more people died of overdoses in 2017 than all US military personnel killed during both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts and more than those killed by guns, car, AIDS in any single year in the US.

According to data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the worst year for deaths from drug overdose in the history of the USA, was 2017. In just 12 months, there were in excess of 72,000 fatal OD’s (a shocking 200 a day) and two-thirds of these were linked to opioids.

Once the exclusive domain of crazy Bohemians, opiate addiction now crosses all classes and social boundaries from the butcher to the banker and the candlestick maker.

Opiate Addiction in Film

It is odd, however, how few movie dramas broach this subject that touches almost every household in America. One the few, ‘Ben Is Back’, directed by Peter Hedges, who wrote ‘Eating Gilbert Grape‘, is in cinemas now. It stars Julia Roberts as Holly, a mother whose prodigal 23-year-old son Ben (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns to the family nest for Christmas and tells how this plague impacts not only drug users but their families and loved ones as well.

The subject of film, that should be seen by every school child and parent in the UK and US, is carefully handled.

Since the 1990s more than 700,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses.

It touches on the abject shame that Ben (and most other users) feels after letting his family down. He was found unconscious with a needle in his arm, collapsed on his mother’s stairs. He sold drugs to a young girl who died of an overdose. He stole and he lied in order to maintain his habit. Also, it focuses on Holly’s refusal to give up on her son. After Ben’s OD, she persuaded his stepfather (Courtney B Vance) to re-mortgage his home and pay for Ben to go to rehab from where he returns out of the blue on Christmas Eve.

Fundamentally Ben is a victim, a sweet kid who took the wrong path and ended up in Hell.

Even though Holly loves her son, she is cognizant of his foibles and hides all the pills and jewellery in her house, refusing to leave his side for the duration of his stay and goes to an AA meeting with him. Inevitably, nothing goes according to her plan and Ben is spotted by his old drug dealer/boss, to whom he owes money and who quickly reappears to create more misery with his foul concoctions.

The Deadly Spread of Fentanyl

Of course, Ben’s journey to addiction was a common one. Like many users, he was prescribed OxyContin for a sports injury and soon became addicted. When the doctor stopped prescribing, he turned to heroin and black market prescription opiates. And here lies the root of this devastation.

Even deadlier is the new improved variety of Fentanyl – Carfentanil, that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

The result of pharmaceutical companies marketing and lobbying for opioids started in the 1990s, when doctors began over-prescribing such dazzlingly effective opioid pain killers as OxyContin (Hillbilly heroin), Vicodin and the milder Percocet. This led to the first wave of deaths as medication found its way into the hands of dealers and addicts. One of the characters in the movie is Ben’s history teacher, who sells Oxy prescribed to his cancer-riddled wife.

Since then more than 700,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses.

More people died of overdoses in 2017 than all US military personnel killed during both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts and more than those killed by guns, car, AIDS in any single year in the US.

Consequently, in the 2000s, drug illegal drug producers in Mexico, Pakistan and Afghanistan, seeing the rise in opiate addicts, seized the day and flooded the market with very cheap and very strong heroin. This filled the gap left by doctors, who by now were chastised for over-prescribing, leaving millions of users to fend for themselves on the unregulated sidewalks.

And now the US is in the middle of a third wave of Fentanyl, a different class of synthetic opioids, that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

As Fentanyl is easier to produce and more powerful than heroin, drug dealers have began to cut their heroin with immensely potent Fentanyl that is killing users left and right. Black market Fentanyl is now pressed and dyed to look like oxycodone pills, but if you take Fentanyl instead of oxycodone, you will almost certainly overdose. Even deadlier is the new improved variety of Fentanyl – Carfentanil, that is is 100 times stronger than before, which makes it 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

Heroin abuse is of course everywhere. It’s all over the UK but no one seems to care. Towns like Glasgow, Blackpool, Burnley, Port Talbot and Portsmouth riddled with heroin and Fentanyl addicts. The council for the latter has funded the use of a drug, Naloxone, in a bid to reverse overdoses.

Portugal Shows the Way Forward

Undeniably this is a huge problem that can only be remedied by following Portugal’s lead.

In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Users when caught are given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker or to seek other help. This has worked and the opioid crisis has stabilised, problematic drug use dropped along with, overdose deaths drug-related crime, HIV and incarceration rates.

Whatever it is, something has to be done and perhaps movies such as Ben Is Back might help conservative authorities realise this.  This is a plague that prisons will not stop.

Ben is Back opens today in all major cinemas across the UK