Statistics give some idea of the immense scale of the nation’s opioid crisis: in 2016 more than 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of the year before the CDC estimated over 2.5 million people in the U.S. were abusing prescription opioids and heroin.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. To sense the full dimensions of the epidemic—from suppliers in Mexico to users here and members of law enforcement trying to interrupt the deadly commerce—requires a perspective from the trenches. That’s exactly where director Matthew Heineman goes in his visceral Showtime documentary series The Trade, tracking the movements of poppy growers south of the border, to addicts scoring in Atlanta and detectives making busts in central Ohio.
“For me, to put a human face to the epidemic was my goal from the very beginning,” Heineman tells Deadline.
Showtime has submitted The Trade for Emmy consideration in multiple categories, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series and Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program. Heineman won an Emmy in 2016 for his documentary Cartel Land, which also explored the U.S.-Mexico drug war, from both sides of the border.
“This topic is obviously something that was very near and dear to my heart having spent a couple years working on Cartel Land and being immersed in the subject matter,” the director confides. “But I just felt like there was an even much bigger story to be told and so out of that curiosity, in collaboration with Showtime, the series was born.”
Among Heineman’s characters are Don Miguel, a man in charge of security for an opioid manufacturing operation in Guerrero, Mexico, and Skyler, a young man in Atlanta who first began using heroin at the age of 17.
The devastating impact of opioid addiction is illustrated in scenes between Skyler and his parents, who reach an emotional breaking point as they try to get their son off drugs. At one point—with Skyler “high as a kite”—his parents threaten to call the cops to get him removed from their house. Heading out the door, Skyler angrily calls his mother a “self-absorbed c***.”
Remarkably, the main characters in The Trade appear without their identities obscured.
“People often ask why people take part in documentaries and that’s a question that I ask myself sometimes too,” Heineman admits. “Whether it’s Don Miguel or whether it’s Skyler, I think it’s the same common denominator. You want people to understand what you’re going through, the world that you’re living in. You want to be listened to…I think especially with addicts part of that conversation was around the idea that by sharing their story, they can help others.”
Of Don Miguel, Heineman adds, “I don’t think he’s necessarily proud of what he does. That’s one of the things I hope I can do with shows like this and films is to show the complexity of human nature and show the complex motivations that we all have. Because nothing is black and white. Nothing is crystal clear.”
Heineman captured footage of law enforcement officers trying to disrupt a heroin distribution network in Franklin County, Ohio. His cameras rolled as a young woman bought a $20 dose of heroin, her two young children in the backseat of the car. There was good reason to film in Ohio—in 2016 the state ranked second with drug overdose deaths per capita, behind only West Virginia.
“It’s one of the regions that’s most ravaged by the opioid epidemic,” Heineman notes. “It was very hard getting access with law enforcement, something that we spent months and months and months fighting for with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to try to get embedded with different law enforcement [groups]. The road ultimately led to Columbus… a place that’s at the epicenter of this crisis.”
In his State of the Union message last January, President Trump addressed the opioid crisis.
“We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge,” he told Congress. “My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need, for those who have been so terribly hurt.”
Whether any progress has been made to combat the problem remains a matter of debate. Heineman does not see his role in The Trade as advocating solutions.
“I’m not a policy expert and I don’t pretend to be. And this series is not prescriptive. There’s no talking heads, there’s no real stats or graphics,” he states. “I feel like it’s my job to provide viewers with a really intimate, personal avenue through which they can understand a deeply complex, massively-tentacled beast of this opioid epidemic.”
But Heineman adds, “That being said, I think we for a long time have treated the ‘war on drugs’—in this case the opioid epidemic—as a war. Treating it as such hasn’t necessarily yielded any results or at least any positive trends. Things only seem to be getting worse… We need to spend and really fight to think of this as a disease, as a health care crisis, that we need more and more resources on that front and less resources on policing the issue. Because ultimately it’s basic economics. It’s supply and demand. As long as there will be demand for drugs in the U.S. there will be supply of drugs coming from Mexico. I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture, but that is the reality.”