All photos courtesy of Showtime and "The Trade"

The opioid crisis in the United States has reached unprecedented levels. Late last year, a report from the CDC illustrated that U.S. life expectancy fell for a second consecutive year due to a 20 percent spike in opioid overdoses. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced days ago that the Department of Justice would target supply lines — such as the dark net — to curb opioid distribution. But this tough-as-nails approach has been tried before, and as history has proved, it doesn't always work.

To unpack the crisis from a more humanistic perspective, filmmakers Pagan Harleman, Myles Estey, Brent Kunkle, and director Matt Heineman joined Showtime to produce The Trade, a five-part docu-series premiering tonight, February 2nd. The series follows the lives of addicts, law enforcement officers, and Mexican opium growers to grasp why this drug crisis has snowballed into a veritable avalanche, and what's being done to stop it.

The Trade team previously worked together on the award-winning 2015 documentary Cartel Land, which tracked two vigilante groups battling the cartels at the Mexican-American border. Cartel Land drew praise from critics due to its stunning cinematography and frightening proximity to its subjects: viewers practically rode alongside the foot soldiers, even as the bullets started flying. This cinematic recipe continues in The Trade.

Chief Deputy Rick Minerd, one of the main characters featured in The Trade, is head of Columbus, Ohio's Heroin Overdose Prevention and Education (HOPE) Task Force. He believes authorities cannot resolve the epidemic by simply booking addicts or turning them into criminal informants. Instead, HOPE teamed up law enforcement with treatment facilities to focus on providing resources for addicts and their families while reserving the big busts for high-level street dealers.

"While it's called a task force, it's really more of an ideology," Minerd told MERRY JANE over the phone. "'Task force' suggests that everybody's working out of the same office. That's not necessarily what we're doing. What we were doing was responding out in the community as a team effort. The program became very popular in Ohio, and I didn't realize this at the time, but it became popular on a national level, as well."

"I was contacted by Our Time Projects, Matt Heineman's production company out of New York City," Minerd continued. "They'd heard about the HOPE Task Force, and they wanted to know more about it. Little did I know that they were scouting to find the right city with the right chemistry to focus on. They wanted to put together a docu-series that really touched on the complexities of the heroin epidemic – both on a national and a local community level – to highlight the good work being done."

To glean a peek into The Trade's production methods and journalistic goals, MERRY JANE spoke with the show's producers during a conference call. The first steps toward combating the opioid epidemic may start with simply sympathizing with its victims – which includes not only the addicts and their families, but also law enforcement and the opium growers just trying to make ends meet while keeping the cartels at bay.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

MERRY JANE: Can you tell me about the inspiration for the docu-series?

Pagan Harleman: The show really came on the heels of [director] Matt Heineman's success with Cartel Land. After finishing that show, he wanted to delve more deeply into the subject of the drug war, and the idea came through the prism of heroin. The film Traffic was definitely bandied about, including growing the story to three perspectives. That's when he brought it to Showtime, and that's how The Trade was always approached: to have three perspectives that would complement each other in a more complex vein than we had the capacity to paint in Cartel Land.

The Trade is 100% documentary, with no actors, correct?

Harleman: Yes, this is an actual documentary. It was originally conceived of two years ago and shot for about 17 months with all real people, real law enforcement, real addicts, real growers in Mexico. These are the stories we found after taking an immersive and intimate approach to the subject.

That intimacy comes across in the editing for The Trade. The series feels more like a scripted narrative than your typical sit-down-and-interview documentary.

Pagan Harleman: We, as filmmakers, always aspire to that. There are so many ensemble stories like Game of Thrones and House of Cards, and with documentaries you want that same approach with a complex narrative, but it's not a "real" narrative, because you can't write it. We spend a lot of time in the field really working the story, and then we spend a lot of time editing it. The aspiration as a vérité documentarian on the team's part is always to create a story that feels seamless and feels like a real narrative.

Myles Estey: I worked on Cartel Land, on the Mexico side. Since then, it was always the directive to produce the shoot to feel as much like a fictional narrative film as possible. We shot like that and it carried over into this project, where everyone already had experience making a similar film. From the start, we were talking about how we could set up the production to make the shoots feel as cinematic as possible. That was always the prerogative from day one.

Pagan Harleman: Just so we're 100 percent clear: these are all people engaged in their lives, and we were just following what they did. We did not interfere or direct them in any way.

You were asked this a million times after Cartel Land, but how did you get access to these people for The Trade? In many cases, you either filmed them committing crimes or they admitted to committing crimes on camera.

Myles Estey: Matt had the strong belief of making access the first priority. We always tell people, we want to wake up with you, sleep where you sleep, eat where you eat, and basically just follow you around. In Mexico, we spent a lot of time trying to find characters because we obviously had some security issues. A lot of people didn't want to go with us, so it took a lot of "no's" and trying. It took time gaining the trust of people, and a lot of that was just being ourselves. Once people saw we were sincere, that we weren't just there for a day or two – that we were there for almost a year – then that trust started to build, and we were able to get the footage that we got.

Brent Kunkle: With respect to law enforcement, spending time with these individuals goes a long way. You start to break down some of the barriers, and they start to realize you're there for the right reasons. You're not there to sensationalize. Law enforcement has issues with cameras. It wasn't an easy nut to crack at first, by any means. We had the good fortune of finding Chief Rick Minerd in Ohio, who really believes in the work they were doing in response to the opioid crisis. He saw value in taking a leap of faith to show people that law enforcement is not taking a singular approach to this. It's no longer, "We're just going to incarcerate people for making wrong choices and struggling with addiction." Instead, it was, "We're going to try to bridge a gap and have a different approach."

Pagan Harleman: We had to find people who felt it was important to share their story, who felt that would be cathartic for them as well as the audience. We got a lot of no's. We got a lot of false starts, especially with the addicts. We ended up finding people who, for whatever reason, felt what they were going through was misunderstood. In the case of their families, they couldn't change what happened to them, but they wanted to help somebody else.

Minerd felt this was a community problem and it needs a community solution. These communities need to better understand it to create more empathy and bring about change. In Mexico, for both Don Miguel and the federal police, they wanted to show more of their perspectives. The "access" that the media is foaming at the mouth over is really the result of going through twenty, thirty, seventy no's, but you find somebody who's ready to be intimate and real with you, and then the magic starts to happen.

Many of the addicts allowed you to film their unobscured faces and display their real names. Were they OK with that, and how'd you convince them to be that open and honest on camera?

Pagan Harleman: When it comes down to legalese, it's hard to prosecute someone for whatever happens on camera, because how can you prove it's real drugs? So, I don't think they ever had those kinds of worries. They had shame they had to overcome, certainly, and the parents did as well. In some cases, some of the addicts would say, "Please don't film me here." We'd never film on the first day, and we'd have to hang out with them and with their families. In Jenn Walton's case, in first episode, she very much feels that the stigma around addiction is one of the biggest problems, so she wanted to show what was going on in her family to bring about change.

Brent, you mentioned law enforcement is taking a multifaceted approach to the epidemic. In private, many of the officers appeared a little reluctant to bust or prosecute the addicts, especially the ones who were just users. From your experience, did the cops see addicts as criminals, or did they see them as victims needing treatment?

Brent Kunkle: Like any line of work, you're going to get varying degrees of commitment. This epidemic has touched a lot of people. Obviously, the cops are part of their own community, and at the end of the day they all go home to their own families. It's hard, especially in Ohio, for a community member not to have somebody – whether it's immediate family or someone close to you – that struggles with this issue. There were a number of sympathetic detectives, and they were sincere about it. You'd also get one who had dealt with that struggle directly, such as having an addicted family member.

When I first met Chief Minerd, I asked him what was most difficult about putting together a task force that only responded to overdoses. He said, "You're a detective, you want to solve murders and take down big drug dealers. You don't want to be a social worker." And there was some pushback from the police, at first, but at the end of the day, a lot of detectives in those units saw that arresting people who were just using and struggling – and even small-time dealers who were dealing to support their habit – were individuals who really needed to be approached in a different way.

You noted a lot of the dealers are addicts themselves. In the Mexico storyline, it didn't seem like any of the growers or hitmen were addicts. Is that accurate?

Myles Estey: That's accurate. Mexico does have small pockets of heroin users, but they're very small. In Mexico City, which has 23 million people, we poked around. We were told it was a very, very small niche market there. Where you see higher rates of use are the border towns like Juarez and Chihuahua, but it's still small. There were a couple of people [in Guerrero] that were using some of the heroin product, but it was to the tune of a handful of people at most, in the entire region. It's generally quite frowned upon and seen as a business, as opposed to something for people to use. It was strictly prohibited in some [cartel] areas, as well.

Was the lack of heroin use in Mexico purely a business matter, or were there deeper societal factors involved?

Myles Estey: I think it's a little bit of both. A lot of the [poppy] growers we worked with, for the most part, they don't drink, they don't smoke weed, and they don't do heroin. They're a relatively sober crew. They may drink at a town party or something like that, but they don't use heroin – ever. Sometimes they're ordered to not do heroin and drugs in general, especially for some of the hitmen. They don't want to be drunk and walking around with guns.

There's a lot of debate right now regarding cannabis as a potential treatment for opioid addiction. While filming, did you encounter any addicts who turned to cannabis for relief?

Pagan Harleman: Anecdotally, I will tell you yes. We did hear from a number of addicts that cannabis made it easier to get through withdrawal. It's not legal in the places we shot, but absolutely, we saw that.

Did any of the addicts turn over a new leaf at any point?

Pagan Harleman: When you watch episode five, you'll know more about that. The challenge with addicts is that it's a wheel that keeps turning. People can get treatment and be clean for three years and relapse. Sometimes they go through treatment 17 times. A lot of the addicts we knew would cycle through treatment. For instance, John became clean for a year, and it was phenomenal. But he had some challenging things happening in his family, and he relapsed. Laina was clean for a year, so she did turn over a new leaf. But we don't know what that'll look like in the future.

After having seen this issue from both sides of the border, in the end, what was your main takeaway from this project?

Myles Estey: I hope this doesn't come across as a cop-out, but I was working in Mexico for over seven years, so the drug war is hardly new to me. I knew it was happening, but the thing I started to realize during this project is that when people talk about stopping this epidemic or stopping the drug war, it's such a complex and interconnected issue. There's so much work to be done. It's not just about where the drugs flow and what the prices are. We talk about getting rid of heroin, but we've got hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico who depend on it [financially]. In the U.S., we've got tens of thousands of people who depend on it, too. That's one of the things not often considered in conversations about stopping this. You have to break through and repair families to truly get rid of the supply-and-demand chains associated with it. Hopefully someone will take on that massive challenge.

Brent Kunkle: The one thing I walked away with, certainly at a community and local level, is we're not going to stand by idly on this issue. You have a lot of people in the community setting up nonprofits and helping addicts get into treatment. Can that get in sync with greater things like law enforcement? Can those two things work hand-in-hand? At the community level, I was blown away by the response.

Pagan Harleman: When we started shooting, the pill mills were on the downward trend. I didn't know how much the pharmaceutical companies were involved in the epidemic. From the pieces that've been coming out in The New Yorker and the Washington Post, we're seeing people make billions of dollars off this epidemic. The surgical approach doesn't work. Any change that's going to happen, you have to listen to the human beings first. If law enforcement goes in and they just try to hit the supply, they're not hitting the demand. They're not taking a holistic approach. If there's demand, the drugs will never stop coming.

Why do you believe this demand exists so strongly in the U.S. and not Mexico?

Pagan Harleman: That's really, really complex, and not something I can speak to, but I'll make an attempt. There's a real malaise in the U.S., especially in the Midwest. There's a confluence of things that are happening around economic struggles, like in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, combined with the over-prescription of opioids and stronger stuff on the street. There are so many factors going in there that are creating the worst health crisis that we've seen in our generation.

Myles Estey: It's easy, from afar, to criticize all the horrible things that happened in Mexico. But the people on the ground there, in the drug industry, they'll say they don't particularly want to do this, but growing poppy pays a lot better than working as a carpenter. They'll say, "The Americans are always criticizing us, but they want to buy it. Why shouldn't I make more money growing it than I would as a carpenter?" I'm not trying to justify their actions, but that's what they say: "If people want the drugs, we'll grow the plants that make the drugs." It's simple for them: if there's a multibillion-dollar demand for drugs, then people will provide it.

If you could leave our readers with just one thought, what would it be?

Pagan Harleman: As a mom, I think there's nothing more painful than watching your child struggle with addiction. It's excruciatingly painful to see your child, that you raised and love, doing something that's slowly destroying them. It was hard for me to watch it remotely in the field. I have two kids, and it was really painful for me to think about what would happen if one of mine became addicted. I'm hoping that, after seeing this show, people will have more empathy for people stuck in this situation, which extends to these addicts and to these growers – and to the cops. I'm hoping with empathy, they'll move beyond the labels and see the human being.

"The Trade" premieres tonight, February 2nd, on Showtime

For more information on the docu-series, visit Showtime's website here

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