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Examining the Many Edges of the Opioid Crisis with Showtime's 'The Trade'
February 2, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Numerous documentaries, on television and elsewhere, have tackled elements of the drug epidemic.

Showtime’s new The Trade attempts to connect all the dots: growers, synthesizers, transporters, dealers, and users, alongside the multiple law enforcement institutions and individuals who work to stop it.

The five-part, five-hour series, which kicks off Friday at 9 p.m. ET, does a good job of explaining the octopus, that is, the ways in which the tentacles of the illegal drug trade span the globe.

Creator/director Matthew Heineman, who has explored the drug world in previous documentaries, gets some exceptional footage. The dark, rugged, industrial-looking rooms where raw poppy matter is cooked into the final product could have been lifted straight from an episode of Breaking Bad.

On the human side, several stark stories remind us how many of the people in the drug chain aren’t rich gangsters.

That includes the farmers of Guerrero, Mexico, whose pastoral fields of opium poppies could inspire an impressionist landscape painting.

The farmers and their workers grow and harvest the poppies in return for enough money to live on, not a lot more. They don’t have much choice, they explain. They could grow corn, but that barely would pay enough to buy food, never mind raise families.

Nor are there other employment options. So that’s what the farmers in this impoverished town do.

Many of them work through Don Miguel, who oversees the local poppy trade. Don Miguel seems to be reasonably well off, and he is something of a local hero because on Three Kings Day, and presumably at other times, he sponsors a show and buys presents for the children in the village.

Don Miguel talks to Heineman’s team about how, as demand for product grows, the price of poppies has gone up, and more cartels are trying to get a piece of the territory.

In just two recent weeks, he says, 20 drivers have been killed in these turf wars. The Trade includes a long, non-graphic shot of what the narrator says are 11 headless bodies. More war casualties.

These extended segments on specific areas and individuals comprise the strongest part of The Trade because it soon becomes clear that five hours, while richly instructive, can only tell a part of this story.

On the American side of the border, which is to say the demand portion of the supply/demand equation, we visit a family (left) whose two sons, Avery and Skyler, have both been opioid addicts. Skyler still is. The mother talks about how they’ve bankrupted themselves trying to get him help, and how they won’t give up until he’s clean or dead because that’s what you do for family.

We also see a young couple busted on the road with the heroin she just bought. She gives up her supplier so she won’t have to spend a lot of time in jail, separated from her kids. Next, we see the supplier busted, and the cameras film the scene where the supplier’s kids are told they’re all being sent to foster care.

It’s discomforting and depressing for the reasons you’d expect. The supplier knew exactly what he was doing and its attendant risks. His kids, all of whom seem to be under 10, only know their Dad and Mom are being taken away, and they’re being sent to live with strangers.

On the law enforcement side, we briefly visit Mexican border agents who demonstrate the drug-sniffing dogs and explain that their checkpoint alone handles 35,000 vehicles a day.

Then we go north to Columbus, Ohio, where Detective Mark Edwards devises strategies to help reduce the flow of drugs through Columbus to the big cities of the East.

The Trade notes here, and in other places as well, how the drug trade is so embedded, and those tentacles so extensive, that opposing it can feel like trying to reverse the tide of the ocean.

Only a madman would think victory was anywhere within human sight.

Edwards and his team tacitly acknowledge this. What they can do, Edwards says, is slow the flow, which still saves real lives.  

That may be the clearest lesson from The Trade: that there are partial victories. The inability to save everyone does not lessen the success of saving some.

In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be the best we could hope for. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a whole industry devoted to helping people throw their lives away.

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