Cops Offer Love and Hope to Addicts in PBS Frontline's "Chasing Heroin"

By Zachary Siegel 02/23/16

The Fix interview with Marcela Gaviria, producer of Frontline's Chasing Heroin.

Q&A With FRONTLINE Producer of  “Chasing Heroin”
via Author

With a slew of heroin documentaries this year, and several major media outlets producing specials on the subject, few have done as respectful and thorough a job as FRONTLINE’s “Chasing Heroin,” produced by PBS. Their coverage renders the current heroin crisis as a public health problem, and emphasizes the systemic failures of criminal approaches. 

Despite its somewhat tired title, what separates Chasing Heroin from every other opiate documentary I’ve written about this year is its commitment to the hard approach of actually educating viewers on controversial, and often counterintuitive alternatives to criminal drug policy. To accomplish this, FRONTLINE documented what is happening in Seattle, which unlike the rest of the country that continues to criminalize and prosecute drug users and dealers, has a program called LEADS (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) that’s virtually turned police into social workers. Cops in Seattle have simply given up arresting people caught in a circuitous loop of “getting well”—a phrase you will hear often throughout the two-hour special—and “getting sick.” This is the binary in which heroin users become enclosed. It’s a grey, tiring atmosphere that even police acknowledge as needless suffering, not criminality. 

It’s actually Seattle police, prosecutors, social workers and family members who upstage the heroin users in Chasing Heroin, with their love and care toward sick people in need of help, not prison or jail. Which is why FRONTLINE’s take on the subject succeeds, because it recognizes the tragedy at the center of it all, that there are no easy answers, no winners, and it will take years to get people on board with a system that treats instead of punishes. 

Below is an interview with FRONTLINE producer Marcela Gaviria, who interviewed several of the participants in the film. Gaviria tells The Fix about her experience in the process of covering heroin use as a public health crisis. At the end of the interview she then flips the script and interviews me. 

What was the experience of interviewing heroin users like Kristina, Johnny, and affected families? Had you ever approached the subject before? 

I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia and cut my teeth covering the drug wars there. I was familiar with the issue of supply but not of demand. It was very challenging in some respects because people in active addiction are pretty unreliable. For instance, in Johnny’s case, he was in the middle of a relapse when I tried to get him on camera. He was feeling very self-conscious and wouldn’t show up to the interview. But I know he really wanted to do it—he just wanted to be in a different place. Convincing him to go on camera in the middle of that was quite difficult but I think we both felt it was important and he was happy to be part of that process. 

Kristina was kind of game from the beginning. I struggled initially, trying to find the right mix of people to include in the film. Because the epidemic is also one where the demographics are showing more white people are using, I very much wanted to find a young white female that had kind of grown up in a different life and was then in the streets of Seattle, and the radical change which occurred in her life. 

I grew very close to all these people I spent a year with and care about them enormously. Their stories are hugely important for people to realize that addiction can happen to anybody. I wanted to humanize it as much as I could. It was great to find a father and daughter relationship to profile, one that impacted the father as well. 

I was really taken with their story in particular—Kristina and her father—it was so caring, the father saying I love my daughter no matter what while seeing his ambivalence, that in a way the daughter he loves isn’t really there at the moment. 

That’s right. Clearly, to see her at the other end, with her complexion changed and her voice changed, with energy back in her eyes, was really amazing. 

She ended the film by getting on methadone, correct? 

Yeah. It was something she never really tried. It’s interesting to feel like at the end of this whole year of following people medication is the solution for them. 

Right. And what’s interesting is multiple participants in the film tried 12-step, abstinence based approaches for their heroin problem. But it didn’t really seem to do the trick. Like in the case with Marah Williams, she went that route and eventually died from an overdose. Do you think abstinence is becoming outmoded or maybe not as applicable to the opiate crisis? 

The experts we spoke to certainly seem to think that the abstinence model is not very effective for treating heroin addiction. I feel like one of the problems is that there is so little information out there. There are not any great double blind controlled experiments that tell you the best combination for treating say, this for this many months and rehab with this combination, etc.—there’s just no information. 

It’s sort of like where cancer was in the 1970s or AIDS in the ‘80s—people didn’t really know what to do. Nobody knows what the best course of action is because there is so little science and so little research about this. In many ways we’re still in the dark ages when it comes to understanding what’s happening in the brain and how best to deal with it. 

I think that what we do know is that prison doesn’t work and we’ve tried that for 40 years. And that’s not [only] what I’m saying; many communities have come to that conclusion. 

Which is why Seattle was the perfect place to witness the more progressive, humane approach. 

That’s why we ended up there. I wanted to look at a place that was ahead of it. I had covered the drug wars in 2000 for a four part series called Drug Wars and I remember being really struck by the fact that people in law enforcement were saying, “We know law enforcement doesn’t work, we have to deal with this differently.” And I was curious 15 years later where things had shifted and what people were doing, and if the country was talking about drug addiction in a less punitive way. 

Were you surprised to hear police officers in Seattle saying to heroin users things like “I’m not going to arrest you,” or “if you have a problem come and see me at my office, I’ll give you something to eat—we’ll sit down and have a talk.” Cops said they morphed into social workers. 

Yeah I was really curious if that would work, if that would really help people or not. Because the prevalent model in this country has been drug court. Just bring the stick and the law of the land and say you either get treatment or you get thrown into jail or prison. That is known to be a strong motivator, but does it work for everybody? There are a certain number of folks in the population where jails do not work for them. So what do you do for those people? 

So it was interesting to see an experiment about as close to decriminalization of drug use as there ever has been in this country.  

It’s amazing that it will be shown in a major media outlet. That’s really what we’re trying to do here, is to eschew the stigma and criminality while showing there are different ways to approach the problem. That’s exactly what FRONTLINE, in my opinion, demonstrated the need for. 

The key point in the film is that we’re diverting people out of jail and putting them into services, but the services are terrible. The system is really broken. And it’s not good enough. If you have half a million people dying from overdose and heroin over the course of 15 years, that is stunning. That’s unacceptable. I think we’ve got to figure out a better way. 

Which brings me to the case in Bremerton, WA, where the methadone clinic faced a NIMBY campaign. What was it like filming there? 

The Bremerton case was really interesting, not just to film a town in the grips of the heroin epidemic, but to see an approach unfold and realize the problems that arise when people still don’t understand what a methadone clinic is and the fear of having it in their neighborhood. It’s complicated territory. 

What do you think gets people to change their minds about these issues? 

I think the second that it happens to somebody they love, I think it’d be very hard not to understand this is something that can happen to anybody. I certainly don’t know, I’m not an expert, but I don’t think it’s a choice. You might choose to try heroin for the first time because you’re a young kid like Kristina and you do something foolish because you’re anxious or want to be cool. But then you get stuck and it’s not a choice. There is still a lot of stigma and a lot of misunderstanding out there of how these medications work. 

There is even stigma within the recovery community. A lot of people in recovery think these medications are replacing one drug for another. 

I found that even in Kristina’s father, who is very well read. He was uncomfortable with methadone and Suboxone. And a lot of addicts themselves say, “I don’t want to try methadone, I’ll never get off of it.” Ultimately, I think, it is about harm reduction. If I’m going to lead a more normal life that’s a better addiction to have. 

So how did you get off heroin? 

Good question. I had a couple different stints. I was on Suboxone for a while and started to taper and eventually got off of it entirely. But I wasn’t really stable and used a couple months later. Then I went and did four months of inpatient treatment. No Suboxone. After that I lived in a halfway house for another four months. Then I lived in sober living for nearly a year. So it took a long time for life to come back to me. 

That’s really amazing. Hardcore. Good for you, it’s really impressive. 

The thing is, and I like to take credit where I can, but it really is because my family had resources to throw at my addiction. 

It’s true. If you don’t have the support, I mean, someone like Johnny who gets thrown out of clean and sober housing, if he doesn’t have a couch to land on, it’s really hard to be clean. 

The stakes are so high for someone like Johnny whereas for me I have a family who provides me with social capital and strong bonds. If I screw up I know I’ll be OK. But if you’re on the street the situation is that much dire. 

Did you start with pills then move to heroin? 

It was prescription painkillers I was taking which I was not prescribed and eventually moved on to heroin. The thing is, and I think about it a lot, is that a lot of people blame the over prescribing of pharmaceuticals for the opiate epidemic. But the data clearly show people in legitimate pain rarely abuse their opioids and don’t become addicted. 

That’s right. It’s a small percentage. There are so many people getting painkillers and the more people on them means a higher percentage will move on to heroin. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.