New PBS Series 'Chasing Heroin' Spotlights Compassionate Approach to Drug Use

By May Wilkerson 02/24/16

The two-hour special tells the stories of individual addicts and examines new approaches to fight the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.

New PBS Series 'Chasing Heroin' Spotlights Compassionate Approach to Drug Use
Scene from "Chasing Heroin" on FRONTLINE Scene from "Chasing Heroin" on FRONTLINE

Thanks to the War on Drugs, cops are not exactly famous for being compassionate, or even civil, when interacting with drug users. This is why a scene from a new PBS documentary, Chasing Heroin, is so surprising. In the video, a cop is seen offering words of encouragement to a young woman shooting up heroin in the street. “Stop crying, babe,” says Lt. Leslie Mills of the Washington State Department of Corrections. “We don’t care… I’m not putting you in jail.”

Instead of locking her up, Lt. Mills then gets the woman something to eat, enlists help, and then calls her parents. This unexpectedly compassionate interaction between cop and drug user is the result of a new effort in Seattle to change how law enforcement handles non-violent drug users. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which was launched in 2011, offers police officers the choice to either arrest low-level drug offenders, or to help get them into counseling, social services or treatment. The scene from the documentary shows the latter choice in action.

“We could not incarcerate people or arrest our way out of the problem,” said Mills. With heroin and the prescription pill epidemic fueling rising numbers of fatal overdoses across the country, Chasing Heroin shows how more and more communities are exploring alternative methods for addressing illicit drug use. In many cases, directing drug users to treatment instead of prison can not only save resources, but lives.

The documentary was produced by filmmaker Marcela Gaviria, who previously produced the acclaimed Frontline series Drug Wars. While making Chasing Heroin, Gaviria and her team spent almost a year investigating the origins of America’s current heroin crisis. In addition to telling the stories of individuals struggling with heroin addiction, the documentary looks at how pharmaceutical companies played a role in the epidemic by pushing for the popularity of highly-addictive prescription opioids like OxyContin.

The two-hour special, which aired Tuesday night, also explores how the national conversation about dealing with heroin addiction has changed as the drug’s usage spread from urban areas into largely white, affluent suburban communities. “We wanted to investigate how we reached this potentially transformative moment, and explore what happens when addiction is treated like a public health crisis, not a crime,” said Garcia.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.