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An ongoing opioid epidemic in the U.S. killed 42,249 people in 2016 and has lowered national life expectancy. Journalist and filmmaker Alex Hogan has lost many of his childhood friends to opioid misuse in Somerville, Massachusetts, and in the new film "Runnin’" he explores their effects on his hometown. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker talked to Hogan and co-director Matthew Orr for more.
America's opioid epidemic, the deadliest drug epidemic in American history rages on. According to the Centers for Disease Control there were 42,249 overdoses in 2016, a 28 percent increase from the year before. For filmmaker Alex Hogan those numbers hit very close to home. Growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts Hogan saw firsthand how one town can be devastate by opioids. As a multimedia journalist for STAT the health and science website affiliated with the Boston Globe, it's also his job to report on the crisis. As part of our ongoing series of conversations with documentary filmmakers, NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker recently sat down with Hogan and his co-director to discuss "Runnin" their film chronicling the opioid epidemic in Somerville.
Alex Hogan knows how the opioid epidemic ends for him.
The crisis is almost done impacting me because I've already lost all my friends, you know. Almost all my friends. All my friends that have been using are almost all gone already.
Since 2001 the filmmaker has seen more than a dozen of the kids he grew up with die due to opioid addiction. People from his neighborhood, people played hockey with and went to school with in Somerville, Massachusetts.
For those who remain, to hear them talk about it now in Hogan's new documentary, Runnin', the opioid crisis arrived in Somerville, a suburb just northwest of Boston, as it did in many towns across America.
OxyContin pills, which Hogan and his friend's called OCs, came first, then came heroin.
Do Oxy's, play hockey, go to parties. Before games, we were, in the bathroom, sniffing OCs.
It really is an origin story.
Matthew Orr is the co-director of Runnin'.
We're talking about Alex and his friends going to high school in the early 2000s just as OxyContin was sort of flooding the streets of the country and was being overly prescribed in doctors offices all over the country. And so Alex's friends were taking OxyContin as a party drug because at the time it was a bit of a pill culture going on. Kids were doing all sorts of pills and here's just another pill to have fun with at a party. Not quite realizing how addictive that drug is and that it actually does in many cases lead to heroin.
And that's when you could really tell the difference. Once the heroin was, was being used widely, I mean people started dying and stuff and it was pretty awful.
The first of his friends to die was 17 year-old Matty O'Brien in 2001.
ALEX HOGAN FROM "RUNNIN'" FILM: For many of us, Matty's death was the beginning of the overdose nightmare that continued for the next 16 years.
What were those early days like? Where did pills come in and how readily available were they?
They were just as easy, if not easier to find than marijuana or alcohol. It was scary. I mean you could really see how it can take hold and take over someone's life. And next thing you know they're robbing, stealing to support their habit and they're just not and they're really just not the person you feel like you knew once the addiction really took hold.
Runnin' is as much an exploration of what the opioid epidemic has done to Hogan's community, as it is an attempt by Hogan to understand why some of his closest friends like Alex Foster, Kevin Sullivan and Sean Curtis fell into addiction and he did not. Walking through Hogan's old neighborhood, he says there are no easy answers.
What do you think it was about you and your path that prevented you from going down that same route.
I wish I had a tidy answer for that. I don't. I think that there's a lot of, a lot of different factors there. There's nothing about me that I can point to and say this is what stopped it because, any attribute that, that may have kept me from it, it's like 'oh I have good parents'. Yeah, but they all had good parents like it. I didn't really experiment much with drugs in high school. Well neither did Alex Foster.
The opioid crisis pretty much unfolded alongside Somerville's transformation from a Blue collar community to one of the Boston area's most sought after places for young professionals to live.
As you lay out in the film, gentrification is a part of what's going on?
Yeah, I think so. I think that there's a lot of factors for sure. But I think that's something, that feeling of, of being kind of left behind in your own town is just another thing that adds to, you know, kids self medicate. In Somerville it was particularly difficult for these guys because it was happening right on top of them.
ALEX HOGAN FROM "RUNNIN'" FILM: Losing Alex, Kevin and Sean was devastating for me and my friends, but they were just three of many who passed. For those of us who managed to avoid opioids we would wonder who was next.
Last year, in Massachusetts alone, 2227 people died from opioid related overdoses, 22 were in Somerville.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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