PBS Documentary “Chasing Heroin”: What We Learned

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PBS Documentary “Chasing Heroin”: What We Learned

Last Tuesday, the PBS documentary show “Frontline” aired a 2-hour special called Chasing Heroin. In the documentary, current and former addicts and their families, as well as medical professional and government officials chronicle the myriad of ways that heroin and opiates have affected the lives of millions of people in the U.S.

According to Sam Quinones, Author, Dreamland:

“Cops and prosecutors and epidemiologists, public health nurses, county coroners— all of this is being fought by really anonymous folks all across the country because this epidemic is also the quietest epidemic. It’s filled with shame.”

A thoroughly engaging documentary, I highly recommended anyone invested in the health and welfare of persons in this country to view it. It reveals the tragedy and the loneliness of this disease without judging.

If you missed the airing of Chasing Heroin, you can still stream the documentary online at PBS here. However, if you choose not to, I’ve outlined some major points to be taken from the special.

The Death Toll has Reached Pandemic Proportions

With the numbers of lives lost reaching over 47,000 in 2014, drug addiction is the #1 cause of accidental death in America. Heroin and prescription opioid are responsible for over 27,000 overdose deaths in the U.S.  Heroin use went up 14% and continues to rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keith Humphreys, Ph.D., Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2009-10:

“We meet privately (with Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC) and he says, “You guys in the White House need to start using the word ‘epidemic’ for opioids. This is an epidemic. Look at all these people dying. This is like the early parts of AIDS. We need to really ramp up concern about this. This is killing lots of people.”

Chasing Heroin | Addicts HelplineOxyContin Was a Bad Idea

When Oxycontin came on the scene, it seemed like a panacea. Although touted as new, it had actually been around since 1916 and redeveloped for extended release.

It was made available to patients due to the long-running pain epidemic in the country. Previously, there had been a sort of puritanical “under-treatment” of pain.  AIDS patients and the hospice movement opened up the minds of doctors who previously didn’t want to prescribe opiates to patients for – guest what – fear of addiction.

Sam Quinones:

“Purdue Pharma marketed it to doctors who were prescribing drugs for all manner of ailments to common, ordinary folks who were not dying of cancer. To them, OxyContin initially looked like a godsend…like, all of a sudden, we can give this, and we don’t need to prescribe eight Vicodin a day.”

Getting a prescription for painkillers maybe wasn’t that hard. People who had surgery, pregnancies, and any other pain issues were once considered appropriate.

Author’s Note: Indeed, a friend of mine (15 years my junior) was prescribed an opioid for wisdom teeth removal. He ended up a heroin addict. On the other hand, MY dentist back in 1998 told me to take 4 ibuprofen and suck it up.

Opioids aren’t really supposed to be for long-term use except for extreme cases of chronic pain or terminal illness. So once someone is addicted to painkillers, it might not be as easy to maintain that prescription. Or, they lose insurance or simply can’t afford the drug anymore. This leads to a heroin habit, which is unregulated with questionable origins.

A 2014 survey revealed that 94% of respondents treated for opiate addiction switched to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to obtain. Americans consume 83% of the world’s supply of Oxycontin (oxycodone) and 98% of Norco (hydrocodone)

Efforts to Help Addicts

There have been efforts as both grassroots and government levels to assist addicts – drug courts, rehab treatment, and even harm-reduction models. But we must continue to establish more systems, care models and programs which uphold the idea that the wellness of addicts is of extreme importance – that it is a disease and public health concern that affects us all.

Also, there are many roads to recovery, and no cookie-cutter strategy is going to work for everyone. Addiction has a common theme underneath its exterior, but it’s also a very personal disease. Moreover, each individual has a different history and personality which play a role in the development of an addiction. Each addict is unique.

Incarceration Isn’t Working

LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) programs are starting to sprout up around the u.S. These programs include harm-reduction models and offer help from law enforcement to addicts to help find treatment – versus simple arrest.

Indeed, drug offenders may spend years in prison, only to come out and reoffend. There’s no rehabilitation – only punishment for allocating a disease.

Lt. Leslie Mills, Washington Department of Corrections:

“So normally, we arrest a person. We put them in jail. With LEAD, we stop them from what they’re doing. We take the drugs away from them. We take the syringes, or the crack pipe away from them….we could not incarcerate these people or arrest our way out of the problem.”

Drug courts are also becoming available to those nonviolent offenders who are looking to change and asking for help.

The Need for New Legislation

Dr. Phil Capp of the Swedish Medical Group talks about medication-assisted treatment, including methadone, naltrexone, and Suboxone. They may reduce cravings for the drug by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain. This blocking effect prevents opiates from producing the normal pleasurable effect.

While some of these drugs have addictive potential on their own, there is still an irony. For example, the government allows physicians to prescribe only so much Suboxone per year – thus, this potentially life-saving medicine is restricted. Meanwhile prescription opioids are not limited to this degree, and still widely available.

Chasing Heroin | Just Believe RecoveryFunding is Needed Desperately

Funding for the treatment of opioid-addicted persons is absolutely essential, and requires both government and public support.

Earlier this month, President Obama proposed a $1.1 billion bill for funding to battle the opiate abuse pandemic. Included in this bill is funding for provider education, increased access to treatment, and greater availability of the life-saving opioid blocker, naloxone.


There’s been a big uptick of heroin and opioid use news lately, and I think it’s a good thing. It’s a problem that’s been increasing, and yet increasingly swept under the rug for years. Chasing Heroin is a very in-depth look at the plague from all angles.

Pain is a problem, and we have yet to come up with good pain relieving drugs that aren’t addictive. Furthermore, big Pharma is a greedy empire, and as long as revenue is rolling in, I don’t think they have much incentive to change.

It’s sad that we’ve had little sympathy for drug users until recently. It was only when these addicts became our small town teenage daughters, suburban mothers, and everyday persons suffering from pain that we have taken notice. We never cared much about the homeless, the down-trodden, the street kids, the prostitutes.

It reminds me of the AIDS epidemic. No one cared about our gay sons for a long time, it was considered a moral disease, much like addiction. We managed to change attitudes about homosexuality – it’s about time we changed public response to addiction.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A. Psychology

Reference:  Cohen, W. (Producer) & Gaviria, M. (Producer & Director). (2016). Chasing Heroin. USA: Public Broadcasting System.

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