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'Frontline' Focus on Seattle Explains America's Heroin Crisis, With a Glimmer of Hope

You probably know someone who has been affected by opiate addiction. That’s how big the crisis is.

February 23, 2016

You probably know someone who has been affected by opiate addiction. That’s how big the crisis is. 500,000 people in the U.S. have died from opiate overdoses in the last 15 years, according to Marcela Gaviria, the producer of FRONTLINE: Chasing Heroin, the most comprehensive and gripping documentary about America’s heroin addiction that has ever been presented on television.

Chasing Heroin, a two-hour special airing tonight on KCTS 9, is centered in Seattle and will give you a jolt no matter how much you think you know about heroin or addiction. 
Gaviria and correspondent Martin Smith’s telling of the personal stories of four Seattle addicts is simultaneously compelling and difficult to watch. But the accounts are wrapped in a larger heroin context, starting with the mid-90s when big pharma made billions by recklessly promoting the timed-release opiate painkiller OxyContin, while downplaying its addictive potential, and with physicians then freely prescribing the drug for all sorts of conditions. Chasing Heroin also unpacks the peculiar brain chemistry of opiate addiction, the failure of U.S. drug policy and the unsuccessful revolving door of traditional punishment.  
Why Seattle? “It made sense to just settle down in one place and explore all of the different elements of the current epidemic,” Gaviria says. 
Seattle has a pernicious heroin problem, but Gaviria also adds that, “Seattle was the narrative that I felt showed the sea change.” There is a glimmer of hope, but more on that later.
All types of stories are represented here, including small town challenges.  In nearby Bremerton the mayor tried to establish a methadone clinic, but was shut down by NIMBYism. Gaviria and her team shot in Seattle intermittently for nine months, to find and cover subjects and win the cooperation of police and users alike. They finished shooting just a month ago.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE.
Seattle viewers will identify with familiar streetscapes and even the personal story of well-known KING 5 anchor Penny LeGate and her husband, who soberly relate their teen daughter’s struggle. Marah’s addiction was full-blown before LeGate even had a clue. There are contrasting stories, including a familiar one from Cari, a middle class woman who develops a heroin addiction after being prescribed painkilling drugs, losing her home and becoming a dealer in order to score. And of Kristina, just 20 years old, who has been homeless for much of her 7-year heroin habit.
This is grim stuff, not only because it’s hard to watch people in a stairwell stab themselves in the neck with needles, but because we know there are so many users unobtrusively self-medicating in their own homes, at least until their Oxy is cut off and they have to find desperate alternatives to get it before, predictably, going to the streets for cheap heroin.  
WATCH: A Cop’s Surprising Interaction with a Heroin User | Chasing Heroin | FRONTLINE
Why is this an epidemic when the inner-city crack cocaine and rural meth explosion was not worthy of the discussion by Presidential candidates? 
“The difference is the demographics,” explains Gaviria. “Four out of five first-time heroin users have previously used painkillers, and 90 percent of users are white.”
When something this big involves the majority population, it gets noticed. As Keith Humphries from the Office of Drug Control Policy put it: “It’s not fair, it’s not right, but it’s the reality.”
Gaviria has produced numerous FRONTLINE documentaries, including the 4-hour series Drug Wars, and says that, “I had covered the drug wars always from the supply side, so I wanted to understand demand.”  
And the conclusion from everyone who participated in Drug Wars was, “We know law enforcement doesn’t work, and we should be trying something different.”
Courtesy of FRONTLINE
Back to that glimmer of hope. A large part of Chasing Heroin is about what’s different in Seattle: an innovative program started in 2011 and now being studied by the feds and other cities. Called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion — or LEAD — it’s a partnership between The Defenders Association, Seattle Police Department, King County Prosecutor and Seattle City Attorney’s offices, and various city and county organizations. It is a harm-reduction model that allows police to keep well-known, non-violent repeat offenders out of the criminal justice system and offer them a chance to see a social service case officer for support services. Participants don’t have to get clean, and they don’t have to agree to treatment. Instead, they are offered help in an ongoing program that may offer opportunities for housing, health resources or sometimes just a square meal — meeting them where they are, forming relationships and helping users step towards a journey that can include treatment when it’s available and the participant is ready.
 “It was really a stunning story for me to think that a whole police department would embrace something that by all measures is pretty radical,” says Gaviria. “I wanted to understand how that had come about.”
Gaviria had considerable credibility from Drug Wars, relating, “The folks at LEAD were really enthusiastic and really let me spend time with them.”
Is LEAD the way of the future?  It's active in three cities now, and another 30 cities are lining up to implement it. But it doesn’t happen overnight. The agreement in Seattle took seven years to hammer out. What would it take nationally?
FRONTLINE producer Marcela Gaviria. Courtesy of Marcela Gaviria. Marcela Gaviria’s hope is evident, but so is her caution. This program and the services and time it would require would cost lots of money. “You still have politicians that are trying to cut down food stamps,” she says. “You’re basically asking society to accept drug use and also pay for the services that these users need when they’re not able to work. It’s hard to imagine this becoming something that’s scalable.”
But, Gaviria says, “A lot of changes are happening in the White House in reaction to the scale of the epidemic.”
Chasing Heroin subtly keeps asking an excruciating question: Is heroin addiction so powerful for some that they will never know successful treatment?   
“Because it's a chronic illness, expecting someone to do 30 days in rehab is a joke,” Gaviria answers. “But that’s all that is paid for ... I wanted to humanize addiction. I wanted to explain how complicated it is to get off these drugs. This is a public health epidemic and we need to figure it out.”



Made possible in part by

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg