The scale and scope of America’s opioid epidemic are hard to fathom. On August 10, President Trump formally declared the epidemic a national emergency, per the recommendation of his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In its interim report, issued on July 31, the commission presented some horrifying numbers. For example: Drug overdoses now kill an average of 142 people in the United States each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To put that figure in perspective, drug overdoses are now responsible for more deaths in America than “gun homicides and car crashes combined.” From 1999 to 2015, the country’s overdose death toll exceeded 560,000 people—in other words, more people than live in the city of Atlanta.
Even those statistics, awful as they are, fail to capture the full magnitude of the crisis. The CDC has reported that, over the time period mentioned above (1999 to 2015), America’s age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths increased by more than 62 percent. By 2015, the nationwide rate was 16.3 per 100,000 people—up from 6.1 per 100,000 in 1999—while the highest statewide rates could be found in West Virginia (41.5), New Hampshire (34.3), Kentucky (29.9), Ohio (29.9), and Rhode Island (28.2). Close to two-thirds (63.1 percent) of all 2015 overdoses involved an opioid, such as heroin or fentanyl.
Remarkably, the crisis got even worse—much worse—last year. Whereas drug overdoses caused 52,404 U.S. deaths in 2015, a New York Times analysis published in June concluded that the overdose death toll in 2016 “most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States.” Based on this analysis, the year-to-year increase from 2015 to 2016 was nineteen percent. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that new data from the National Center for Health Statistics confirms that “deaths from drug overdoses rose sharply in the first nine months of 2016.”
Simply put, the opioid epidemic has become “the worst drug scourge to ever hit the country,” as journalist Sam Quinones wrote in Dreamland, his superb 2015 book on the origins and explosion of the crisis.
Given all that, you might expect Hollywood to be churning out a wave of movies and television dramas about the opioid scourge. After all, the entertainment industry has often used its cultural power to shine a spotlight on a public-health crisis. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, it drew attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis through films such as Longtime Companion and Philadelphia, while movies such as New Jack City and Jungle Fever depicted the ravages of the crack-cocaine epidemic in America’s inner cities.
Each of those films sought to promote greater awareness and understanding of a major social problem. Now we need movies and TV shows to do the same thing for America’s current drug crisis.
Thus far, Hollywood has been slow to address it. Indeed, while the opioid epidemic has inspired a slew of documentaries, relatively few fictional movies or TV shows have explored just how destructive it has been to communities across the nation.
Some people are trying to change that. In recent months, for example, two independent films about the heroin crisis in Cincinnati—titled 75 and Over-the-Rhine—premiered to local audiences. Meanwhile, there’s a new TV series being filmed in North Carolina—titled Exposé—that will offer a multifaceted look at the opioid epidemic. As Spectrum News reported last month, “The ten-part series addresses the issue from three different perspectives—law enforcement, a local supplier, and the rest of the community that’s affected by the growing problem.”
One hopes that other showrunners and filmmakers will embrace similar ideas. If they do, America’s upper class might finally appreciate the severity and urgency of the problem. Since the opioid crisis began, our big-city coastal elites have been largely insulated from its devastating impacts. “For many of us in the elite,” Andrew Sullivan has noted in New York magazine, “it’s quite possible to live our daily lives and have no connection to this devastation.”
That’s because the epidemic has been concentrated in places like Huntington, West Virginia (where the head of emergency medical services told CNN that heroin is “destroying a whole generation”); Manchester, New Hampshire (where “at least half” of the fire chief’s job “is dedicated to dealing with the state’s opioid crisis,” according to U.S. News & World Report); and Chillicothe, Ohio (where, as one resident told the Washington Post, shooting heroin has become like “drinking beer”).
Here’s what a Chillicothe police captain wrote in Vox earlier this year:
There was the mom that overdosed in her car, her kids still sitting in the back when the police arrived. Or the home where the officers arrived on the scene to find an elderly parent left without anyone to care for them after their son overdosed.
Sometimes, officers walk into a situation where an overdose turns into a death. They are left dealing with the grieving, sometimes hostile family members who are coping with the passing of a loved one in real time.
I’m a police captain in Chillicothe, Ohio, a town of about 20,000 located an hour south of Columbus. The heroin epidemic is unlike any addiction boom I’ve ever seen. Overdoses are an almost daily occurrence, typically racking up between two to five a week. Then, there are days where nine or 10 people overdose.
As the police captain’s article suggests, the people on the front lines of this crisis have some truly harrowing stories to share. Yet until the opioid scourge receives greater attention in American pop culture, it will be difficult for our urban elites to comprehend just how much death and despair the epidemic has caused.
Image: By Conneec7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons