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Harm Reduction Program in New Mexico Is Subject of New Documentary, "The Exchange"

By Dorri Olds 12/09/16

Viewers will experience the Harm Reduction Program first hand while following the specialists who work to combat the spread of infectious diseases and overdose deaths.

Cemetery from "The Exchange" film.
Photo: via Kickstarter

The Exchange, a documentary in-progress, features an inside look into New Mexico’s massive drug problem and those who work tirelessly towards harm reduction for drug users. Help is being offered, sans judgment, and it is saving lives.

Española and Rio Arriba County, New Mexico have had the highest per capita drug overdose rates in the U.S. since the late 1990s. In 1997, one of the first national state-mandated syringe exchange programs was introduced. By 2001, as opioid overdoses continued to increase, New Mexico authorized pharmacies to provide naloxone (Narcan).

In order to find out more about the documentary and how it will help people in these affected counties, we reached out to the film’s director and producer, Layla Bozek.

Bozek’s interest in addiction solutions is personal. “I grew up in the Bay Area in California,” said Bozek. “I lived with both of my parents until I was eight. That’s when their substance abuse issues came to a head. My grandparents came and got us.” Her father recently died from a heroin overdose.

"I reconnected with my father for a few years before his overdose." They had been estranged for 12 years. “He’d do anything—heroin, and he drank like a fish, took pills, and started shooting up. My mother and him used methamphetamine and coke for a few years. Luckily my grandparents adopted us.”

Bozek is the oldest of four. She has had some difficulties with binge drinking and she’s experimented with drugs. "But I’m five feet tall and 125 pounds, so it doesn’t take much to get me messed up. I always end up getting sick and hating how I feel, so I’ve tried to stay away from it all. My brother is in recovery. And I go to Nar-Anon."

On The Exchange’s Kickstarter page there’s a video of Phillip, an ex-addict who has been part of the harm reduction movement for two decades. Back when he was shooting heroin, he found a syringe exchange program in Milwaukee. He was surprised by the non-judgmental approach to treatment. He wasn’t told he was “untreatable” and a “criminal.” After getting clean he became a harm reduction specialist in Rio Arriba county, which includes Española.

He looks like he’s seen a lot as he talks about his drug using days. “The presence of a clean syringe never made any difference on my decision, or my need, to get high. Didn’t matter.” But when a close friend of his got AIDS, he began looking for help. Now he helps run the largest syringe exchange and Narcan distribution program in the state. He is determined to help erase the stigma around addiction.

Bozek said, “I found Phillip when I’d been mulling over the idea of doing a documentary about a harm reduction program. I was completely drawn into the world of harm reduction specialists, needle exchanges and seeing the kind of education these specialists offer to the community. I was fascinated by the people and the stories they have to tell. Some looked like they had some mileage on them, but they were in recovery and wanted to give back.”

From the Kickstarter: Why This Film Now?

In a time where we see many downtrodden communities become more and more marginalized from social stigmas and political agendas, it is our duty as filmmakers to provide a platform for these stories to be told. We strive to bring the story of this program to the masses and by spreading awareness, save lives. 

If you’d like to learn more about The Exchange and make a donation to back this worthy film, please visit its Kickstarter page.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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