American Relapse

Addiction and especially the opiate crisis which is going on now are in the headlines almost every day. Last year more Americans died of overdoses than died during the entire Vietnam War. Meaning American Relapse is something that is very timely. American Relapse, now available on VOD and blu-ray, is a feature-length version of the Viceland series Dopesick Nation from 2018.

Pat McGee and Adam Linkehelt’s tough but highly watchable documentary follows the story of two former addicts who are now trying to make a difference by helping others get off of drugs. They roam around the (certain) streets of the Delray Beach, Florida area, a city known as the rehab capital of the United States, and find addicts then try to get them to agree to go into treatment.

People who do this are called junkie hunters. Now like any job or industry there are good ones and ones who are in it just for the money. Frankie and Allie are two of the good ones. They have both had their problems with drugs and are both now clean. Allie is 28-years-old and has been clean for 10 years. Frankie is 38-years-old and has relapsed multiple times, but continues to run his F*$k Heroin Foundation with his mother. Our two “heroes” are not who you would necessarily pick out of a crowd to fill such a role and are flawed, but totally relatable.

While both are at different points in their recovery, they both have a deep connection to the 12th step, which is to help others. This is why they do what they are doing. Unlike others, they are not primarily or only doing it for the money. It is not just a “job” for them; they are invested in it and this section of the population.

The two allow cameras to follow them around for one weekend. It is a really small parcel of time, but enough of a sample to get a gist of what their day to day life is like. Seeing what they do and a little insight into their private lives as well. A very intimate and personal depiction of addiction and the fight to get out of it. We see that just a little bit of humanity can be the difference between an addict getting clean or remaining on the street in a precarious lifestyle.

I know there are plenty of differences between the Canadian and American health systems, but I was unaware of how the drug treatment industry in the U.S. has become a billion dollar industry. A self sustaining industry. Meaning that several facets of it preys upon addicts with insurance and does not really want them to get any better because there is no money in that. Eye opening.

Addicts with good insurance are seen as profitable. The people who “sell” addicts to treatment centers are often called junkie hunters. These junkie hunters can make up to $2,000 with each referral. Frankie and Allie help addicts regardless of their insurance state.

In 2009 under the Affordable Care Act addiction was no longer considered a pre-existing condition. Meaning that insurance companies were obliged to cover and treat it as a disease. Making things trickier is that each state has its own laws. Because of new laws treatment centers boomed in South Florida. Ways to make money off of addicts opened up. This is why Delray Beach is known as the relapse capital of America.

Each stage of treatment is seperated. This opens up billing opportunities. Becomes a cycle of profit rather than the focus being on treatment in some facilities. They keep clients in a revolving door. The system is set up and exists on the back of relapses.

As you might expect there is a lot here that is hard to watch. It is real and raw. There is also plenty of light. The empathy and dedication to addicts that these two have should make the viewer feel hopeful about humankind. Reinforces the idea that there are still good people out there who want the best for others.

What it does show is how delicate and uncertain recovery is. Especially when it comes to heroin and opiate addicts. These drugs do really take hold and American Relapse gives us a window into how desperate some people are to get off of them yet still relapse. There is also a view into what addicts will do to get drugs. Desperate times call for them to engage in desperate or dangerous actions. When you see what they will do to get high you cannot believe that addiction is anything but a disease. No one would choose to do the things they do or live the life they are living.

What I took away from the film is that the time for doing something was long ago. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything; it just means we have to race to catch up. We have to change laws, improve rehab and treatment and hold accountable those making money off this illness.

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