Experts discuss Showtime’s docu-series “The Trade” on opioids in America

A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RC1B1DEBCC10

“It really is one of the worst public health crises in the United States,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown during a recent event on the opioid crisis in America. At the event, Brookings screened an episode of the Showtime documentary series “The Trade,” a provocative five-episode docu-series that spotlights the crisis through the eyes of growers, addicts, cartel bosses, and law enforcement personnel. The discussion that followed included Felbab-Brown, executive producer and showrunner Pagan Harlemann, and Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry  at Stanford University. Lenny Bernstein, health and medicine reporter at The Washington Post, moderated the conversation. Video highlights are below. Full event video and a transcript are available here.

Bernstein, who has covered the opioid epidemic intensively for the past three years, offered a high-level view of the epidemic, which he noted has been ongoing for 22 years and includes abuse of three drugs primarily: OxyContin, heroin, and now fentanyl.

Felbab-Brown, whose research focuses on organized crime and illicit economies, and who directs a Brookings project on improving global drug policy, called the U.S. numbers “staggering” and explained how the epidemic is spreading to Canada and elsewhere.

Humphreys, who served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (2009-10), called the opioid epidemic “the worst public health epidemic of my lifetime,” eclipsing even the highest annual number of deaths from the AIDS epidemic.

Pagan Harleman, executive producer and showrunner of “The Trade,” reflects on her work on the program over the course of two years, saying that overdoses affect more than just the one person. While she saw law enforcement taking a more social worker approach, “mostly we saw a lot of helplessness.”

Felbab-Brown offered some ideas to address the crisis, including more regulation of the pharmaceutical companies. In the clip below, she mentions an article she co-wrote with Humphreys and Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, on how to stop the epidemic from going global.

All episodes of “The Trade” are available to watch on Showtime. Full event video and a transcript of the discussion at Brookings are available here.