One young woman describes maggots feeding on an infection in her leg. Another talks of prostituting herself for heroin. Both wear prison uniforms as they recount, on camera, falling under the spell of opioids.
Jail, one FBI agent says during the 50-minute educational film, is the best most people like these young women can hope for.
“It’s gonna end in a bad way,” the agent says.
But now, a Chanhassen mother who lost her son to an accidental overdose is working with local FBI officials and a Hennepin County drug court judge to freshen up opioid abuse outreach for local, young audiences.
Though she encountered the worst possible outcome of addiction — her 20-year-old son died in their family home in 2016 — Colleen Ronnei wants to add a touch of hope to the messaging delivered to middle- and high-school audiences around the state.
“All of the messages he got were you’re either going to die or you’re going to end up in jail,” Ronnei said of her son Luke. “Nobody was saying you can recover, this is a disease, there is help for you.”
Alongside Judge Marta Chou, presiding judge of the Hennepin County Drug Court, and the FBI, Ronnei has participated in outreach events in front of more than 3,500 middle- and high-school students around the metro since last November as part of her “Change the Outcome” nonprofit initiative.
It didn’t take Ronnei long to train her sights on the “Chasing the Dragon” film produced two years ago by the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, designed to be played in schools across the country. The film opens with remarks from James Comey and Chuck Rosenberg, former directors who have since left the two agencies.
But updating the film to reflect current leadership is not top of mind for Ronnei.
“Many people in ‘Chasing the Dragon’ are incarcerated or they are so far along in their addiction,” Ronnei said. “What high school kid can relate to that?”
So she set out to record a new documentary in her living room, featuring friends of her son and other recovering addicts all under the age of 25. She worked with a local production company to shoot a two-minute snippet to be played Sunday at a fundraiser in Minneapolis to help pay for the rest of the project, which Ronnei and others hope to have ready by the start of the next school year.
By telling the story of young Minnesotans’ experience with addiction, the group hopes to produce messaging that can better resonate with school audiences.
“We’re not at the extreme examples yet — we’re talking about kids in middle school who might have access to prescription drugs in their mom and dad’s cabinet,” Chou said. “They’re not thinking prison shots, wearing orange ... [or] maggots crawling out of skin.”
Craig Lisher, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, said he envisioned the new video, which will likely run about a half-hour, would complement the FBI’s “Chasing the Dragon” film as one more piece of a broader curriculum.
The group has spent time largely in Minnetonka and Bloomington schools and plans to branch out throughout Minnesota. Each school organizes the events a little differently, but each incorporates the film, a panel that includes local recovering users and breakout sessions to discuss both presentations.
Unbeknown to Chou, her babysitter was in the audience for one panel. She learned of her attendance when the girl’s parents later told Chou that the event made their daughter reconsider taking opioids after oral surgery.
“For me, the time I spend on this program is the best time I can ever spend,” Chou said. “It could not get more real than my babysitter being in the audience and my babysitter making that choice.”
Ronnei still chokes back tears when she talks about a 14-year-old Bloomington student who thanked the group after a recent panel for “saying that [addicts] are not bad people, that they have a disease.”
The boy’s mother is a user, he explained, and “she is not in my life anymore and I don’t feel like I can talk about her because of all the judgment and shame.”
Minnesota recorded 402 deaths in 2016 linked to opioids — more than twice the total in 2006, according to a Star Tribune review of death certificate records. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has helped introduce legislation to curb the epidemic, including recent funding increases and policy reforms. Klobuchar, who recorded a message to be played at Ronnei’s fundraiser, said prevention efforts like those pursued by “Changing the Outcome” are vital.
“A lot of this is just not leaving these people behind,” Klobuchar said in an interview. “So if you can stop the gateway, stop from getting addicted and kids understand if they go to their parents’ medicine cabinet and take something out, they might change their whole lives forever.”
Ronnei dips into her son’s memorial fund to pay for gas or Starbucks gift cards for the young panelists. The group has learned that it can’t simply plug panelists into a spreadsheet to be invited at a moment’s notice for participation. One participant had to cancel because a friend in Mankato relapsed and needed an intervention. A young man from Eden Prairie, who sailed through eight months sober, emerged last fall as a good candidate for a panel, Chou said. But one morning around Thanksgiving, she learned that he died from an accidental overdose.
“It really strikes you when you’re sitting there in that moment — you have such an awesome responsibility,” Lisher said. “You have this young life who’s looking for help.”
One measure of Minnesota makes a cameo in the background of the new film: snow blanketed across the backyard pond where Luke loved watching baby wood ducks emerge from their nests. The clip begins with the young men and women summing up their lives during addiction: “loneliness,” “misery,” “just absolute pain and agony.”
As Ronnei speaks on camera, images of Luke with the family on vacation splash across the screen. She carries professional portraits of him to events, pointing them out to student audiences: “You guys, this is what a drug addict looks like.”
Bringing the short, rough cut full circle, the survivors speaking in Ronnei’s living room close by describing their lives sober.
“Happiness. Connected. Joy! Joy! Serenity, peace, love, family. ... Healthy. Life is good.”