In 2009, Current TV correspondent Mariana von Zeller traveled to South Florida to report on the prescription drug pipeline that stretches from the beaches of Miami to the hills of Appalachia. Her documentary, “The OxyContin Express,” won a Peabody Award for its depiction of the impact of Florida’s prescription drug epidemic on addicts, law enforcement officials and prisoners. Now von Zeller has produced a new documentary called “Gateway to Heroin” that exposes how prescription opiate addicts are turning to heroin for a cheaper high.
For “Gateway to Heroin,” von Zeller focused on the situation in Massachusetts, where prescription pills have become the most popular street drugs. Many drug dealers travel to Florida (referred to by von Zeller as the “Colombia of prescription drugs”) to obtain prescription drugs illegally, bringing them back to Massachusetts to sell on the street. In an article on the CNN website, von Zeller states that more people are abusing prescription drugs than heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy combined.
The most abused prescription drugs are painkillers that contain oxycodone, which includes OxyContin. In 17 states, painkiller overdose is the leading cause of accidental death. The prescription drug problem in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the nation has been compounded by the recent introduction of a tamper-proof version of OxyContin that makes the drug harder to ingest by smoking or inhaling. Von Zeller found that this is leading many addicts to turn to Percocet, which also contains oxycodone.
In Massachusetts, von Zeller discovered that oxycodone is for many addicts a gateway drug that leads to heroin. Both heroin and oxycodone affect the brain in similar ways and satisfy the same cravings in addicts. The main difference between these two drugs on the street is that heroin is cheaper, easier to obtain and more potent. In the course of researching “Gateway to Heroin,” every heroin addict that von Zeller spoke to started out by abusing OxyContin.
Lt. Tom Coffey of the Massachusetts State Police told von Zeller that he hasn’t met any heroin addicts under the age of 30 who didn’t start by using OxyContin or another form of oxycodone. The common pattern is to begin by abusing Oxy. The abuser becomes addicted and when oxycodone becomes too difficult to obtain or too expensive, turns to heroin to avoid suffering withdrawal. A new generation of young people are being introduced to heroin through prescription drugs and ending up being hooked on heroin, which is arguably the most dangerous and addictive illegal drug.
Both of Mariana von Zeller’s documentaries are part of Current TV’s “Vanguard” documentary series that features reporters who immerse themselves in extraordinary situations in order to bring viewers first-hand accounts of some of the most important stories in the news. Current TV was founded in 2005 by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt and is available in most areas via satellite and cable TV.