How did the opioid crises take off in the US before the government or even families knew what was going on? Legal pill pushers, given the imprimatur by doctors, distributors like Walgreen and manufacturers like Actavis generated the opioid killing machine. American Pain in its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival effectively exposes how lack of regulation fuels the opioid crisis and death by drugs. Additionally, the Spotlight documentary highlights that an in depth understanding of the supply chain from pill manufacturers to doctors who write scripts pays off. This is especially so in states like Florida, whose political good will maintains strong ties to the medical industrial complex.
Directed by Darren Foster, in a comprehensive well-researched study, the film uncovers the chronicle of Jeff and Chris George as kickstarters of the opioid crises we still suffer today. Indeed, law enforcement identified that the George brothers ran the largest street level operation of all the opioid dealers in the U.S. No one put more pills on the streets than they did. The scale was enormous and they did this in broad daylight and with impunity.
Through interviews of the twin brothers, their family, friends and law enforcement who took down their pain clinics, Foster exposes Florida’s opioid empire. Importantly, Foster includes undercover video footage to document the George brothers’ successful pain clinic business up to their capture, clinic closures and jail sentences. In fact Foster’s account of his subjects spools out American Pain as a true crime story. The documentary adds another spin to our understanding of the opioid epidemic and highlights crucial aspects not known before.
Twin brothers and bodybuilders Chris and Jeff George grew up in Florida luxury with a father who generated money in real estate during the housing boom. With a privileged upbringing in upscale Wellington (home to Bill Gates and others) the twins received whatever they wanted. However, when their parents divorced, Jeff and Chris lived with their mother and stepfather, a firefighter. Their lifestyle changed. They embraced body building, steroid use and the red neck lifestyle. Indeed, from privilege and doing well in school, they took up white supremacy in a subsequent attraction to the machismo of guns, strippers and diesel bodies.
Ironically, when a brush fire they set exploded into a forest fire, a slap in the face for their stepdad, the boys only got a slap on the wrist. Their illegal actions continued. and their wrap sheet grew to include battery, vandalism, grand theft auto and criminal mischief. However, they never saw jail because they received suspended sentences or community service. Accountability never knocked at their doors.
Clearly, the director points out in taped interviews that their father, Mr. George, disdained the police and uplifted being rich. Indeed, he told his sons that the cops are stupid to make no money. Foster reveals through interviews that the twins’ father maintains a point of pride with his sons making millions. That they also contributed to causing deaths by addiction and overdosing escapes Mr. George conveniently.
This attitude of blaming the addicts for overdosing and dying Foster indicates as one also held by George and Chris. Indeed Chris states in his last interview that he merely provided a service. If the addicts died, they and their families had to own their deaths. “They’d find another way to die,” remains the attitude also held by their mother who worked in their pain clinics and knew the addictive nature of the drugs. With the exception of maybe one or two opioid dealers who went to jail as they did, most of the pill pushers expressed the same attitude. They felt no remorse for the results of their actions. A aunt of the Kentucky group of pushers, known as the queen opioid dealer in Kentucky, also believed the addicts were responsible for their addictions. Her relatives who drove to Florida weekly to pick up pills and drive back to her, who dealt them out knowing her clients would die, also have the same attitude.
All along the supply chain, starting with manufacturers, no one took responsibility for opioid deaths. And as Foster’s interviews with law enforcement reveal, all knew Roxicodone’s (another name for Oxycodone) addictive power could eventually lead to death. However, money talked and death walked. As long as the money rolled in, accountability didn’t matter.
When the George brothers took steroids, their friendship with suppliers led them to deal steroids in gyms. Enjoying the money because of their former lifestyle and father’s lionizing money, they moved to more lucrative sales after meeting Dr. Overstreet. Interestingly, like anything, the Georges started small with South Florida Pain Clinic. Then they opened another clinic East Florida Pain Clinic because the lines flowed out the door and around the block. By word of mouth folks across the south and from around the country drove or flew down for their pills.
Foster in a clear and precise indictment of Florida’s lax laws regarding pain clinics and doctors, reveal how the twins got away with fraud. When Dr. Overstreet died, they used his lists to engage other doctors to write scripts. A former DEA agent who needed money was hired to make the operation organized and legal according to lax the licensure of Florida pain clinics. Additionally, Florida had no central data base for patients and drugs. So with impunity, the well oiled operation ran smoothly with no interference from law enforcement. Patients could arrive, show where the pain was, get a script in a few minutes and be out the door with a few hundred Roxidodone. When a mobile MRI owner came to work with them on the advice of others, the patients’ pain legitimized by the MRI paperwork, sealed the deals.
As they grew their franchise of pain clinics, manufacturers and distributors made millions. Of course, the doctors made more money than their co-pays which further fed their addiction to money. The George brothers hauled in trash bags full of cash. Humorously, the ridiculous happened with parties in the clinic parking lots and neighbors furious about the noise. And moving to the height of a great business model, busloads of addicts came to the clinics for their “meds.” In one instance Foster shows video clips of “church members” with T-shirts listing the church leaving the bus to go to the clinic and get their pills. All was made to look legitimate when it wasn’t.
As word got around, others wanted in on the money. Foster reveals other pill pushers who opened their clinics, rivaled the George brothers. Like thugs, Chris George to protect his business demanded a percentage. He received it after he threatened to burn down Zach Rose’s pain clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. And when reporters stalked the twins and doggedly questioned their activities, on good advice they changed the name of their business to “American Pain.”
Foster gets to the inside corruption with mastery. As succinctly as possible, he draws down hundreds of hours of wiretap recordings, undercover video and interviews with drug pushers who went to jail with 7-year sentences because they pleaded guilty. Only Jeff George received a 20-year sentence because pills from his clinic could be traced to a user who died.
American Pain covers familiar ground in an unfamiliar way. Unfortunately, manufacturers still make opioids and distributors find ways to deliver their product flying under the radar of law enforcement. Of course the opioid death rate increases and Chris George intends to continue being a businessman. However, in Foster’s last interview with him, he didn’t specify his plans. Clearly, unless state governments make it impossible to push pills at even one-half the scale the George brothers did, folks will still overdose. When they can’t get opioids, they’ll move to heroin or Fen Fen. Foster reveals this will continue because addiction pulls in billions across the supply chain.
See American Pain at Tribeca Film Festival by visiting their website: https://tribecafilm.com/