'The Trade' tells personal stories of far-reaching drug crisis


Judy Woodruff: Now, a new documentary series showcases the pain and the many effects of the nation's opioids crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported yesterday that emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses were up 30 percent compared with the year before.

The series puts a human face on this crisis.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

It's part of our ongoing coverage of this issue, America Addicted.

Jeffrey Brown: The series is called "The Trade."

Man: I never thought that I would ever be like this, that I would continue to do something that would kill me.

Woman: Get out of my house.

Jeffrey Brown: And explores the opioid crisis in five parts and from multiple perspectives, the cartels growing poppies and producing heroin in the Mexican highlands, drug enforcement agents trying to stem the flow of heroin and synthetic opioids into Ohio, and active users and their families struggling with addiction in Georgia.

Woman: I don't want my kids living in a casket.

Man: We are getting drug dealers off the street. At least, this way, we can say we are making a difference.

Man: We all think addiction and drugs, it's not in my neighborhood. The reality is, it is. This stuff is everywhere.

Matthew Heineman: You know, access is everything. And the way to get access is through developing deep, deep trust with our subjects.

Jeffrey Brown: Matthew Heineman directed "The Trade" and recently spoke to me from New York.

Matthew Heineman: This issue of the opioid epidemic has always been well-covered in traditional media. And I felt like, with my job and as I have done with previous projects, to really put a human face to this.

Jeffrey Brown: Heineman is best known for his 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary "Cartel Land," which provided an inside look at life along the U.S.-Mexico border for those on both sides of the war on drugs.

Man: You know the conditions are that you don't get high, and we know you're high.

Jeffrey Brown: With "The Trade," he wanted to expand that project to show just far the drug war reaches, as with this Atlanta family, the Waltons, whose two sons struggle with heroin addiction.

Woman: That's exactly what I'm here for. Just give me my stuff.

Man: She's not staying here, Skyler.

Man: No (EXPLETIVE DELETED). We're trying to get her home.

Man: Well, how do you — trying to get her home?


Woman: Can I just give him gas money just to get him out of here? Can I just give him money to get out of here?

Matthew Heineman: When people think of addiction, they often think of what it does to the individual addict, but,so often, it ravages not just the mind and the body of that person, but the family, communities.

And that storyline with the Waltons is really seen through the eyes of his mother, Jen, who tries desperately to help her son and has been doing so for many years, despite his continued attempts of getting clean and then relapsing and attempts of getting clean.

And this drug is so hard to kick, no matter how much love you have, no matter how much support you have. It's just it's really, really difficult to get off of it.

Jeffrey Brown: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug addiction crisis in 2016 killed more than 64,000 Americans, more than AIDS, gun deaths or car crashes at their own respective peaks.

"The Trade," available now on Showtime, explores the consequences on both sides of the border, in Mexico, tens of thousands of people killed or disappeared, mounting police corruption, a security state.

Matthew Heineman: This — quote, unquote — "war on drugs" is based on this very simple economic structure of supply and demand.

As long as there's a demand for drugs in the U.S., there will be a supply of drugs coming from Mexico and South America. And with that will come violence. With that will come heartbreak. And with that will come criminal enterprises that are taking advantage of it.

Man: Suspect Corey is a suspected narcotics trafficker for an overdose which occurred earlier this month.

Jeffrey Brown: The U.S. is fighting back with more border security and raids and penalties on drug runners.

Man: Heroin is a killer. It tears people apart, eats them away.

Jeffrey Brown: But in "The trade," it's a never-ending Whac-A-Mole game drug agents must play, and there's always another drug dealer out there.

For Heineman, that's one of the key takeaways.

Matthew Heineman: I don't think this crisis is going to be fixed with walls or with barriers.

I think we need to stop thinking of it as a war, and stop thinking of it as something that we can police, and stop thinking as something that we should continue to spend billions of dollars on in terms to trying to fight it.

I think we have to really start to think of it more and more as a health care crisis and start to, you know, really pour more and more money into treatment, as opposed to just policing the issue.

Jeffrey Brown: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington.

Judy Woodruff: All five episodes of "The Trade" are now available to watch for free on YouTube or Showtime.com.

Recently in Nation