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"Frontline" takes a compelling and heartbreaking look at heroin epidemic


The popular CBS police drama “Blue Bloods” carried an episode Friday that sadly could have been inspired by a recent story in Buffalo.

In the episode, a New York City cop went missing. He eventually was discovered to have a drug addiction and by program's end was receiving treatment for it.

The episode undoubtedly was written weeks before last week’s headline here: “Off-duty officer probed after heroin overdose”

It also was written before the heartbreaking story last week by Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel in which a Rochester family with Buffalo roots detailed how their son and brother, a 29-year old Iraq War veteran, lost his lengthy battle with drug addiction.

The off-duty officer story was the latest in a series about opiate addiction that has had the police force here respond to hundreds of overdoses in the past two years and recently saw 23 die, according to the Erie County Health Department.

The epidemic has led people to wonder why it is happening and what the chances of recovery are from addiction.

The award-winning PBS series “Frontline” looks for the answer in an enlightening, compelling and overwhelmingly sad two-hour episode, “Chasing Heroin,” that airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WNED-TV.

It should be must-see TV in Buffalo or any other community dealing with the problem. And that means just about everywhere.

How big a problem is it?

A “Frontline” release notes that “the heroin and opioid crisis has been called the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history, with deaths from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses nearly quadrupling in 15 years.”

The first hour of the program produced by Marcela Gaviria and featuring correspondent Martin Smith answers the why it is happening. The short answer is it is an epidemic that is several decades in the making and there is plenty of blame to go around.

The driving force is the government agency’s decision to accept the drug company industry’s false claim that the painkiller Oxycontin wasn’t addictive, which led doctors to prescribe it more often than might have been necessary and many patients to depend on it to the point of addiction and eventually going to heroin, which was easier to acquire and cheaper.

“Frontline” puts a public face on addiction and shows the different, radical ways police agencies are trying to deal with addicts.

One of the ways is treating addiction as a public health problem rather than as a crime because jailing non-violent addicts clearly doesn’t help them deal with the problem. Not everyone agrees with the softening stance, which is something “Blue Bloods” also addressed on Friday.

The addicts on "Frontline" have some things in common. The most visible is that they are all white, which illustrates who the great majority of these cases involve.

Smith’s quotes what the late comedian Richard Pryor once said about an epidemic. “It is an epidemic now because white people are doing it.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says it a different way in the program.

“Well, you know, when things seep into the majority community, the nation pays a greater amount of attention than when it is confined to minority communities,” said Holder.

The invisible part of addiction is how the drugs impact the brain and make addiction extremely difficult to beat (the program says that 90 percent of heroin addicts relapse in the first two years) and frustrate the addict and the family that loves him or her.

Over almost a year, “Frontline” followed several addicts, primarily focusing on the Seattle area that in 2011 took a different approach in dealing with the problem.

Kristina is a 21-year-old addict of seven years who lives on the streets, sells drugs and occasionally visits her overwhelmed father. Kristina says she feels the drug “literally has a brain and it shares mine.”

Johnny is a former musician who turned to drugs after his marriage broke up and longs to see his children. “It’s life or death for me,” says Johnny, crying. “I don’t want to die.”

Cari is a suburban mother and former PTA member who lost everything and became a heroin dealer after becoming an addict.

The program also features a father who has to drive a long distance to get his daily methadone treatment because many communities fight against having such clinics in their areas.

At one point, Kristina, Johnny and Cari become part of a new program in which they are allowed to go free as long as they check in with case workers that try to get them help when they are ready for it. Rather than arrest them, the authorities counsel them and try to find them treatment. The authorities feel the policy reduces the crimes the addicts might commit to get money to feed their addiction.

Of course, there isn’t enough money in state and federal budgets to deal with all the problems of addiction. “Frontline” estimates that only half of addicts that need treatment receive it.

I’d love to report the program has many happy or even hopeful endings.

But in the end, this isn’t “Blue Bloods.”

This is reality in all of its heartbreaking, painful, frustrating and incredibly sad moments.

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