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Chasing Heroin is a two-hour documentary that investigates America’s heroin crisis. The documentary details the opioid epidemic and how police offers, social workers, and public defenders are working to save the lives of addicts. The documentary explores the origins and continuing causes behind the heroin epidemic such as; massive increases in opioid painkillers starting at the turn of the century, Mexican drug cartels who are now rooted in upper-middle-class neighborhoods, and the cheap price of heroin when compared to prescription pain killers. During Chasing Heroin a program in Seattle called LEAD is explored. This program channels addicts into a system that points them toward help (rehab, temporary housing, counseling, methadone treatment) instead of prison time. The main idea that becomes the driving force behind Chasing Heroin is that treatment is more effective than incarceration.
The long history of doctors avoiding prescribing opioids for the fear of addiction is mentioned several times throughout the documentary. Before the mid 1900’s the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was formed to tax those making, importing or selling any derivative of opium or coca leaves. In the 1920s, doctors became aware of the highly addictive nature of opioids and started to avoid treating patients with them (Center, 2004). In 1924 heroin became illegal. However according to a history published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003, anesthesiologists opened “nerve block clinics” in the 1950s and 1960s to manage pain without having to resort to surgery (Meldrum, 2003). This push for treating pain without surgery was a major factor in the opioid epidemic we see today. In 2008 the overdose death rate was almost four times the rate in 1999, and the sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times higher than in 1999 (Paulozzi et al, 2011). The substance use disorder treatment admission rate is also greater than in 1999, with it having been six times higher in 2009. Chasing Heroin’s claims surrounding the fear of prescribing pain medications is correct as you see an increase in public policies surrounding opiate use in the early 1900’s. The climbing rates of overdose deaths and the increased amount of people seeking addiction treatment suggests that the fear of prescription opiates was justified.
Chasing Heroin presents the idea that methadone clinics are destroying neighborhoods because they cause an increase in the amount of addicts in one area. However one study compared violent crime statistics from around 53 publicly funded treatment centers in Baltimore to 53 liquor stores. It was found that the areas around the liquor stores had a greater number of homicides, rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies per business than the areas surrounding drug treatment centers (Furr-Holden, et al., 2016). There was a 25 percent increase in violent crime around the liquor stores when compared to the treatment centers. These findings show that the increased activity in one location due to drug addicts receiving daily methadone and other treatment brings no increased amount of danger to a neighborhood.
Chasing Heroin pushes the fact that people are dying in increasing numbers and painkillers have only added to that problem. The documentary states that over 27,000 deaths a year are due to overdose from heroin and other opioids. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015 prescription pain relievers accounted for 20,101 overdose deaths, and 12,990 overdose deaths are related to heroin (Rudd et al., 2010-2015). The documentary’s investigation gives the history of how the heroin epidemic started, with a great focus on the hospice movement. We are presented with the idea that once someone is addicted to painkillers, the difficulty in obtaining the drug over a long period of time becomes too expensive and too difficult. This often leads people to use heroin. This idea is true as a 2014 survey found that 94% of respondents who were being treated for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “more expensive and harder to obtain (Cicero et al., 2014).” Four in five heroin users actually started out using prescription painkillers (Johns, 2013). This correlation between heroin and prescription painkiller use supports the idea presented in the documentary that “prescription opiates are heroin prep school.”
Chasing Heroin did a great job of diving into the epidemic and brought to light how the problem began, the effects it has had on our nation, and the programs being put in place to address the issue. It presents opioid addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal justice problem. It challenges the common belief that addiction is a moral failing and personality issue, and blames this common misconception for holding society back from making progress in fighting this epidemic.
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