The settings in the movie are familiar: the streets, stores and beaches of Hyannis, Wellfleet, Falmouth. So are its stars: eight young people in their early 20s, who look just like the waitress who brings your coffee, like college students on the way to class or like your own kids. They are not gangsters, not degenerates, just suburban kids.
These kids are white, middle class – and heroin addicts. Two of them didn’t live to see their lives exposed in an HBO documentary. The trailer for “Heroin: Cape Cod USA” underlines the point the director leaves unsaid: “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
The young people in the film, and the parents in a support group meeting, talk about how they got addicted, how they survive, the trouble they’ve gotten into, the pain they’ve caused their families, and the friends who have died with needles in their arms. They talk about how mundane an addict’s days are, constantly in pursuit of the next high and how hard it is to quit, made harder because they aren’t sure they want to.
If anyone tries to tell you breaking an opioid addiction is easy, talk to an addict. Or, go to HBO on Demand and listen to the Cape Cod kids.
What’s striking in this documentary about addiction is who isn’t shown. There are no cops interviewed, no doctors, no experts offering easy answers and no politicians.
Politicians are in the audience. Gov. Charlie Baker invited state officials to a screening of the film in Boston. Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Richard Neal hosted a screening last week in Washington for members of Congress, followed by a panel discussion involving several officials with Massachusetts ties: Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, White House drug czar Michael Botticelli and Attorney General Maura Healey.
They don’t have simple answers either, for the tragedies unfolding on screen and in families across the country. If anyone tries to tell you fixing the opioid epidemic is easy, find someone else to talk to.
Addiction is a disease that’s easy to catch and hard to cure. We won’t get far doing any one thing; we’ve got to do many things at the same time.
Among the things the politicians are doing:
- The Massachusetts Legislature is close to completing work on a comprehensive opioid bill that would limit initial prescriptions of painkillers, require doctors to check patients requesting opioids against a list of abusers and make schools institute substance abuse education programs.
- Baker and Healey are working with the Mass. Medical Society to boost training for physicians in safe prescribing practices and addiction treatment.
- The state just outlawed fentanyl, an additive that makes heroin even more dangerous and addictive.
- The federal government just sent more anti-trafficking resources to southeast Massachusetts.
- Healey promises greater enforcement of the laws requiring mental illness and substance use disorder be covered by insurers at the same levels as other illnesses.
- Police are moving away from the traditional “lock them up” mentality when it comes to drug addicts. Some departments are offering to help addicts get treatment. Others are taking social workers and mental health professionals on patrols with them.
- Everyone is working to put Narcan, an antidote to heroin overdoses, into the hands of first responders and users’ friends and families. When Narcan prices spiked in response to the demand, Healey negotiated a settlement providing discounts for municipalities.
- Massachusetts and other states are strengthening their prescription drug monitoring programs to slow the flow of prescription painkillers to people who abuse them.
The ideas for drug education, prevention and treatment range from big changes in the way we think about addiction to small precautions. In a recent interview, Healey told me she’s working with real estate brokers to get home-sellers to clear prescription opioids out of their medicine cabinets before inviting strangers in for open houses.
Some of these ideas will work, some won’t and some will have unintended consequences. Efforts to stop the flow of prescription drugs into the black market, for instance, have driven up their cost – and driven opioid addicts to the more affordable heroin. But this is a dire, all-hands-on-deck emergency; anything that might help ought to be given a shot.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the zenith of this crisis yet, which is a really scary thing,” Healey said. “But if we continue to press on education and intervention and treatment, we’ll be in a better place. We have to be in a better place, because this isn’t sustainable.”
“Heroin: Cape Cod, USA” is not for the squeamish. If, like me, you have a hard time watching needles pierce the skin, be prepared to avert your eyes.
But we cannot turn our eyes away from the people caught in the grip of this epidemic. They are everywhere, and they are just like us.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.