Review: Frontline’s ‘Chasing Heroin’

Last February, Frontline put out an investigative journalism film called ‘Chasing Heroin’ and the story focuses on Seattle, Washington and the various government agencies involved in trying to mitigate heroin use through the use of a drug court, and alternative sentencing.

They also try to bring some sense to how the US opioid epidemic came about.  Mostly, they blame two things:

1.  That doctors in the US were not treating pain symptoms appropriately, as in not at all.

2.  That Purdue Pharma was using junk science to pass OxyContin as a ‘wonder drug’ in lieu of the Hospice-Home Care era that arose in the middle 00’s.  As they entered that market, which at the time primarily had end-stage cancer patients, they used the successes to expand their market into all patient markets, with a major focus on primary care physicians.

If you follow federal court, you know that Purdue ultimately admitted to a bad marketing, aggressive sales tactics, and too much junk science to acknowledge.  They’ve paid dearly, and continue to be listed as respondents in lawsuits; I could argue that the penalties are not enough, but that’s for another time.

As the story unfolds, there is an emphasis on the idea of alternative treatments.

Early on, they focus on Bremerton, a small town across the Puget Sound from Seattle, that was an early hot spot for the Mexican cartel-influenced heroin trade that came in the wake of pain pill prescriptions being halted.  The Mayor, Patty Lent attempted to bring a methadone clinic to the town, because almost overnight they were deluged in heroin, and it’s after affects.

But many citizens didn’t want it.  They were aware of the methadone clinic in Seattle, and the type of neighborhood it had become, only after the clinic opened.  The Seattle Times has covered that topic several times since the clinic opened, and they’ve claimed that Seattle Police do not actively response to the area for petty crime, because the calls come in so frequently, they don’t have the manpower to address each and every call.  That idea has also been proven inaccurate, but it seems to show that media does as much to counter methadone clinics, as they seem to do in support of them.

At any rate, the citizens overwhelmingly showed no support for the Mayor’s initiative to bring a clinic to town, and that was that.  Frontline’s piece attributes 40 overdoses have occurred in Kitsap County since the measure was shot down.  They frame it an arrogant attempt and holding citizens responsible.

In the next segment, they play a short montage, with audio overlays of television news segments where the lead is that half of inmates in federal prison are in for non-violent drug offenses.  The problem with this statement is that non-violent drug offenses is used to describe any person who is charged under the Narcotics Act, who also does not have a violent crime attached.  I’ll discuss why that context is important later.

And from that montage, they go right into a quick analysis of Seattle’s drug court.  They talk about the basis of the court is that drug addicts sign their rights away to a trial, and that they admit to being guilty of the charges presented to the judge, meaning that they can be sentenced immediately.  However, that stick is used to get them to choose the “carrot” of treatment, and other alternative sentencing, like anger management, victim encounters, and so forth.  It’s in this segment that we get our first taste of what drug court really is.  Cari Cresia is followed from the introductory segment throughout the film, and she returns in this segment, facing a small prison sentence of one or two years for the crimes she’s been charged with.  In her discussion with Frontline’s film crew after the appearance, she mentions briefly that the charges involve her dealing narcotics.

I didn’t introduce you to Cresia in the start of this review, because I wanted to make the point:  This concept, of drug addicts in Seattle’s drug court graduating from drug use to drug dealing is happening with far too frequency.  And in this film, you’re going to see it again.

Cresia admits on camera that she started small, and then ultimately was selling in large quantities, and implicates herself that she was involved with a drug cartel, and then tries to soften the information by saying her involvement was indirect, removed by one person……sounds interesting.

Then in comes Michael Botticelli, who at the time of the film was the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.  He admits to having been in a DUI accident in 1988.  A judge offered him treatment, or jail time.  He took treatment, and has been a lightning rod for alternative sentencing and treatment of addiction-based crimes ever since.  One point to make here is that Botticelli, despite all his credentials, and his sincerity about his efforts on this front, he never mentions what happened in that accident back in 1988.  If it was his first offense, why was a judge so privy to offering him treatment as a way to remedy the sentence?  While by today’s standard the situation makes sense, that wasn’t really the case in the 80’s.  Alternative sentencing really didn’t take hold anywhere until the late 90’s, and even then it was rare.  I’m sure there’s not nefarious to the story, but it does seem curious that he would lend this story out as his credibility for being in the room, but only tell part of it.

Next we here from the King on Nonsense, Eric Holder, who talks about his time as a judge in Washington D.C., where he was forced to issue mandatory minimum sentences to people who were dealing drugs “in a non-violent way.”  Which is funny to hear.  Holder served as a judge in the late 80’s and early 90’s in the District.  This also coincides with record homicide rates, directly attributed to the drug “trade,” as in dealers.  So in this section, nonsense fully prevails.

The parts where they juxtapose court hearings into the film, show that the attempt here is for people, prosecutors, judges, counselors, and so on, who have no direct relationship with the offenders, and all collectively try to force them into treatment, programs, and slew of other alternative sentencing structures, that are suppose to set these offenders up for success.

But what it seems like is just another meat grinder, trying to push people fast, fast, fast, and hoping for the best.  And the long these drug courts operate, the longer they can substantiate themselves with statistics, studies, results, and all the social science one comes to expect as being legitimate for any cause.

“Gaylan” was featured in the tail end of this segment, and he’s a ‘failure’ in the eyes of drug court.  He’s down to his last ‘point’ as they refer to it, before he’s automatically sentenced between 60 to 120 months for the crimes he’s committed over his time in drug court.  He doesn’t receive the early release that he desires, and as soon as he completes the program he’s assigned to, goes right back out to shoot heroin.  He even flashes what he says is 350 dollars worth of heroin, as he and another male setup their syringes and shoot heroin on an outdoor staircase, while Frontline is filming.  I wonder where he got the money from.

Next, we’re exposed to Seattle’s LEAD program, short for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.  And the explanation given by Lieutenant Mills from Washington State Department of Corrections doesn’t make sense.  At first she says they defer drug addicts to the program.  Then she’s asked if they defer everyone, and she say’s no.  Then when she’s asked to explain, she bluntly points out that the program is about counseling, and again, alternative sentencing measures.

Except for the fact that we’re not even talking about a judge at this point.  So is she saying that police are empowered to make a “judgment” about a person and what they can handle for treatment?

They bring in an unidentified male from the street with loads of needles and paraphernalia, and judging from his disposition, is very high.  They present him in front of a counselor, and she starts reeling of treatment options.

Mikel Kowalcyk is the counselor, and we get to hear a lot from her in this segment, and she does a great job of explaining what LEAD…’s an attempt not to stop drug use, but to stop all the other crime that drug addicts commit, like theft, trespassing, and safety issues like overdosing.  What this begins to sound like is a very calculated plan to appear like a helpful approach to helping addicts, when it is in fact a way to stop businesses and non-addict residents from having to confront drug addicts on a daily basis in one form or another, keep those productive people from leaving the city, and keep property values up.  Obviously there’s someone up above who knows how to feed the line personnel a lot of nonsense, while still achieving a goal of being a land of liberal thought, and concealing the real problems of the community at large.

Then we get a peak into a LEAD meeting, which are conveyed twice a month, involving all the members of the team that are charged with mitigating these offenders.  One of the members, a case manager, speaks in the meetings in a way that suggests that she believes she knows everything better than virtually everyone else in the room, including law enforcement officers.  And judging from the reactions, she’s someone special, because it’s clear this is par for the course.

That case manager then sits down with Kristina Block, another heroin addict, for her initial intake.  And the spiel she gives the offender only furthers the point of this program, when she says they’re looking to increase her “quality of life.”  And we’ll talk about that more in awhile.

As her intake session hums along, it’s both tragic and alarming.  For one, she’s already admitting to “sometimes” dealing.  But then she talks about all the other crime she involved in, shoplifting, “boosting,” which is an organized form of shoplifting that involves multiple people raiding a particular item from several locations, and selling them to a “fence” for a predetermined amount.  All in all, she is bringing in $1,000 dollars a week from these efforts, in her words.  But then all of it is going to “dope.”

And in comes Lisa Daugaard, from the King County Public Defender’s Office.  In the 80’s and 90’s, when crack hit Seattle heavy, like every other community that faced the drug, police departments employed undercover, and stake out units to strike open air drug markets.  Unfortunately, for SPD, Daugaard saw an opportunity to accuse them of racial bias in their arrests, by staging statistics that suggested they were four times more likely to arrest black drug offenders, than white.  The problem is that this accusation doesn’t look at the specific issue Seattle was facing.  First, the crack epidemic in Seattle specifically affected black populations.  The few people who were not black that were affected by it, were literally so few and far between, that the areas known for the drug, would not be places they would frequent on extended stays.  Consequently, the people spending the most time there were drug dealers, and addicts with nowhere else to go, and this is how the city block known as “The Blade” came about years ago, which is also featured in Frontline’s piece.

Daugaard sued SPD, who ended up settling, but the settlement was to create an alternative program for drug offenders.  Honestly, SPD should have fought Daugaard.

And with her arrival, she explains, along with Dan Satterberg from the Prosecutor’s Office, how this program was formed, what it took to be deployed, and then they talk about their being spotlighted by the Obama Administration as a model program.

And here comes the faux-statistics to make the program seem legitimate.  They had the University of Washington track the program, and it shows that participants are 58% less likely to be arrested.  Which sounds wildly successful.

Except, you have to factor in the fact that every person in the program is getting “arrested” on daily basis by the officers in the LEAD program, they just aren’t being charged.  Fake statistics, you gotta love them!

At this point, we catch up with Kristina, who’s not participating in the program, and is merely using the needle exchange portion, and boy is she loading up needles.  I mean, A LOT of needles.

Then she’s back out the door, talking on speaker phone, and she’ guessed it….dealing!  She’s ramped up her dealing efforts.  Fantastic!

She meets up with a guy in a silver BMW, who she picks up dope from to sell.  And now her “business” of selling has consumed her whole lifestyle.

So not only has King County Drug Court, but now this wonderful LEAD Program is graduating drug addicts to drug dealing… much for reducing crime!

In the final portion of this segment, Frontline makes a push to promote Suboxone, a receptor-blocking drug that makes heroin useless to heroin users.

That case manager we talked about earlier is in the next scene, trying to find Kristina, who is in the wind.  She finds her, in what I believe to be an area near Westlake, judging from the scenery, I could be mistaken.

Kristina professes her angst….she’s out of money, she’s out of dope, she’s sleeping on the sidewalks of Seattle, and it’s fall, so that means she’s contending with freezing rain overnight.  They profiled Kristina’s dad in this and they have what I would call a casual relationship, and it makes me wonder why it is his daughter doesn’t feel safe enough to go home in the midst of a Seattle winter hitting.  I doubt he’s hurting or abusing her, but I wonder what has devolved so badly she can’t sleep at his house, since earlier in the film he describes how seriously concerned he is for her.

In the end, Cari ends up with a bad drug test, and ruins her drug court program.  Kristina winds up hitting rock bottom in an ICU with a heart and lung infection.

What we do know from this program, is that most of the participants want to survive and spread their program, and they’re willing to lie about the true results of their program.  And make no mistake about it, LEAD is a direct effort of certain people in Seattle to remove arrests from statistics, and pretend they’ve lowered the crime rate.

It’s noble that people felt that coming up with a different approach to heroin, and all drugs for that matter, was worth doing.  But what’s clear from their own testimonial, is that the experts don’t have an answer for the problems.

You’re still on your own.



Published by Matthew Ballantyne

I'm Matthew, and I write. I've worked hard in my career, and it's granted me a lot of access to the true character in people, which I now use to create stories for you.

One thought on “Review: Frontline’s ‘Chasing Heroin’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: