Film Festival screens “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA”

Vineyarders turn out in force to discuss opioid epidemic.

The panel discussion of "Heroin, Cape Cod USA." —Photo by Sam Moore

The Performing Arts Center was nearly filled for last Thursday’s free showing of the documentary that hits close to home: “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA.” The film was part of the 16th annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.

A panel discussion followed with the documentary’s producer Lise King, addiction specialist Dr. Alexander Walley, Island psychiatrist Dr. Charlie Silberstein, Quincy police department’s Det. Lt. Pat Glynn, and moderator Jane Seagrave, publisher of the Vineyard Gazette. The MV Youth Task Force co-sponsored the event, along with the Gazette. State Senator Dan Wolf introduced Ms. King and the film.

Sen. Wolf asked the audience during his opening remarks to “leave here and be good activists.” He said that in his opinion, the opioid epidemic is a symptom of a society and culture that’s gone in a “bizarre direction.” Adding a light comment that drew some laughter, he said, “How do you spell Trump?”

The senator continued to talk about the issue at hand, saying that nearly everyone has been touched by the drug epidemic, including his own family. “My oldest daughter is getting married to a recovering heroin addict,” Sen. Wolf said. “Everybody in this room, or just about everybody, has been touched by this.”

Ms. King thanked Sen. Wolf for his support of “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA,” telling the audience that the film was screened in Boston with Gov. Charlie Baker in attendance, and on Capitol Hill with the surgeon general. She said that with the documentary, there is work to be done to “change hearts and minds.”

“Heroin: Cape Cod, USA” follows the lives of eight 20-somethings who live in the Upper Cape area and are addicted to heroin. Painkillers paved the way for their heroin use. When the painkillers became too expensive or hard to obtain, they switched to the much less expensive and readily available heroin.

The documentary is an all-access journey into the lives of these young people, showing them stretching an elastic around their arms with the ease of a phlebotomist. After cooking it in spoons, they draw the heroin into the syringe and then find a vein in their arm, hand, or even their neck. Despite the harrowing look into the nuts and bolts of their addiction, the film also provides a window into their humanity.

Marissa, one of the young women profiled in the film, explains that she had her first taste of painkillers when she had her wisdom teeth removed at age 14. A young man named Daniel says he sniffed Pixy Stix as a kid. Others talk about being prescribed painkillers like Oxycontin, Vicodin, or Percocet after a sports injury or an accident.

The young people in “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA” were ordinary teenagers who played on soccer teams or went to college after high school. Most of them speak lovingly of their parents and families. The film features members of a Cape Cod support group, Parents Supporting Parents, as they talk about living with their child’s addiction. Some of the participants in the film have parents who attend the weekly meetings.

The documentary shows the depressing cycle of the young people chasing after the drugs, driving up to Boston or hanging around a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot waiting to buy heroin. They talk about stealing painkillers, money, or items to sell so that they can buy drugs. Marissa talks about how family members hide their purses when she’s around. She’s adamant that she never steals for money but admits that she works in strip clubs or at prostitution if necessary.

They don’t paint a hopeful picture of their reality or for their future. One young man says that after you hit “your lowest low, there’s a trap door and you can go lower.” Marissa wipes away tears as she talks about not having any real friends, and when addicts do make it through detox, she said their supposed friends taunt them and say, “Oh, you think you’re better than us.” Another young man says that eight kids on his soccer team ended up addicted to heroin. At times it’s hard to remember that the documentary was filmed a mere ferry ride away.

Arianna, a lovely young woman chronicled in the film with two small children, says that she stopped using when she was pregnant. Judging by the documentary footage, she clearly enjoys taking care of her two babies. By the film’s end viewers find out that Arianna died of an overdose and her mother is now raising her two children. Marissa, who brought a very real aspect to the film with her comments that reminded viewers that she could be their daughter and that on the Cape, young people either work or do drugs, also died of an overdose while they were making the film.

The documentary includes some daunting statistics, including that 85 percent of the crimes on Cape Cod are opiate-related and 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription painkillers after an accident or surgery.

The movie touches on Narcan, a lifesaving opiate antidote that is now in use by law enforcement and EMTs on Martha’s Vineyard. Narcan reverses the effects of opiate overdose but can only work within a very short window of time. In the film, however, the young people talk about being revived by Narcan only to go out and use heroin almost immediately afterwards.

The panel discussion after the film shed some light on opioid addiction and what it will take to combat the issue. Det. Lt. Glynn, who was integral in training the Quincy police department in the use of Narcan in 2010, said the addiction problem must be treated with compassion.

“I believe we changed our mindset in Quincy,” he told the audience. Instead of talking about those addicted as criminals, now they think of them as someone’s child, Glynn said. They take them to the hospital, listen to what they have to say and realize the person who overdosed, whose life police or medical personnel may have just saved with Narcan, has a choice as to what happens next.

More than one panel member reminded the audience that once an addict gets treatment and goes through recovery, the likelihood of overdose if they use again increases because their body no longer has the same tolerance for the drugs. Island psychiatrist Dr. Silberstein said the film was an “absolutely brilliant portrayal of opioid addicts.” He also said the addicts he’s treated talk to him about chasing the high they get from the drugs, to the point that they need opioids to feel “normal.”

Lively discussion with questions from the audience came as the evening winded down. Some from the group expressed that they feel that physicians need to be more accountable for over-prescribing painkillers. Others voiced that the myriad of pharmaceutical advertisements on television may contribute to the drug problem.

By the time the panel discussion was over, the remaining audience was made up of what looked to be people 40 to 50 years old, who could easily be parents of children the same age as those in “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA.” The crux of the event didn’t appear lost on them.

“I’m speechless,” said Annemarie Ralph, a parent who’d come to watch the film. “It’s mortifying. Now I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if my kid gets an injury?’ I don’t want them to play sports.”

Martina Thornton, Dukes County manager, was also in attendance. Although she said she wasn’t shocked by what was going on in the film, she found it heartbreaking.

“The majority of people don’t see this unless it affects them,” she said. “It’s reality. I’m not shocked.”

The MV Youth Task Force and the Island Wide Youth Collaborative are presenting a discussion about opioid use with Cory Palazzi and Lori Palazzi Gonsalves, a mother and son who will share their story about addiction on April 8 at 6:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School library.