EXCLUSIVE: Peter Guber and Mike Tollin’s MSM has optioned the rights to journalist Paul Solotaroff’s in-depth account of the fentanyl epidemic which is currently devastating the suburban communities of New England. The article delves into a local DEA bureau chief’s relentless pursuit to fight the war on drugs. Published yesterday in Men’s Journal, the 8,000-word piece is titled “The Needle and the Damage Done.” It will be developed as a one-hour drama designed for cable or streaming platforms under the title Toes Up.
Solotaroff is the investigative journalist behind “El Chapo: Inside the Hunt for Mexico’s Most Notorious Kingpin” which was published last year by Rolling Stone. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is the second article to come from his nine month ride with the DEA. As he learned in that process, the problem is enormous: El Chapo’s network spans 50 countries in six continents (sans Antarctica).
In the U.S., the opiod epidemic is wiping out entire communities. The article follows Jon DeLana, DEA bureau chief of three Northeastern states — NH, VT and Maine — some of the most devastated states in America.
Toes Up will use Solotaroff’s article as the backbone and focus on small-town New Hampshire, a state choking on smack (500 overdose deaths last year, as compared to just 16 murders), and DEA bureau’s DeLena who is charged with ending, or at least slowing, the madness.
DeLena, a law enforcement officer born and bred in the area, constantly finds himself in a dilemma: if he wants to build big cases and arrest the true villains (the fentanyl kingpins in Mexico and the Dominican Republic), he must arrest and flip his addicted friends and neighbors — or worse, their neighbor’s teenage kids. “This is the new front in the war on drugs: federal law enforcement vs. the people they grew up with,” Solotaroff told Deadline.
“I’ve been familiar with Paul’s writing for years. I’ve always loved the depth of his characters and the cinematic quality of his writing,” said Tollin who met the journalist at a screening for the documentary Morningside 5. “After the screening, there was a guy in the back asking these very interesting questions. Afterwards, we sought each other out and we said we should talk … he said I want to send you something.” Solotaroff sent the article. Tollin said he was excited at the possibility “to do something so timely and socially impactful, and to find this hero like Jon DeLena who you can base a series around and celebrate for his courage.”
Executive producers will be MSM’s Tollin, Solotaroff and Mason Gordon, who was instrumental in bringing the story into the company. Matt Ochacher of The Nacelle Company and MSM’s Laura Gleeson will serve as producers.
“This article was a real eye-opener,” said Gordon. “Paul’s writing has a tremendous way of being provocative and asking the questions that really matter without stating them explicitly. What really blew me away about this article is how he framed this as a societal problem and that no one is immune to this. It has come out of the poor, urban areas and is happening in middle class and upper-middle class communities now.”
Solotaroff said that after writing about El Chapo he wanted to write about the other end of the heroin highway because it cut through to “and has wiped out an enormous swath of white, working class people.” he said. “Chapo knew the real markets to get to were where there were huge clusters of ethnic whites. He first flooded the market with cheap synthetic pain pills and then followed that with fentanyl.” He said that the druglord figured out a way to get out of paying the farmers and cops and create his own synthetic heroin which is 50 times stronger than regular heroin. Then the imprisoned El Chapo went about creating a large distribution network, using his supermarket business to facilitate his operation using vast storage spaces he had in port cities.
El Chapo hired people to dig these elaborate underground tunnels — oftentimes a mile long — so laundry baskets full of drugs could move through on rails. “His repayment to them was shooting them all in the head and burying them in an unmarked field,” said Solotaroff.
That is the kind of danger facing these DEA agents, which Solotaroff appropriately call “super-soldiers.”
Solotaroff broke the NFL concussion scandal, the Aaron Hernandez story, and was the first to report the horror-show conditions at Walter Reade Hospital. He has also written a series of stories that helped free innocent men who were doing life without parole in state prisons.
Solotaroff is the author of three books. Six of his stories have been optioned for TV dramas or films, including Original Gangster, The Fixer, Living the Vida Macho, Not Guilty and The Gangster in the Huddle.