What happens to drug addicts who don't get the help that they need? Forget for a moment whether you believe the prevailing science that addiction is a disease, or that proper medical care—and not willpower alone—is required to overcome it. Forget your own feelings about the morality of drug use and about who's to blame when use erupts into full-blown abuse. Just for now, forget questions of right versus wrong, and focus on cold, hard reality. What happens to drug addicts who don't recover? Do they vanish, like ghosts, and take their problems along with them when they evaporate into the ether? Do they slink into darkened corners, hating and hurting only themselves? Do they die quietly and harmlessly, without disturbing the rest of us?
Of course not. Drug addicts who don't get the help they need get worse, and their addictions grow and grow, until their compulsion has consumed everyone and everything around them. They destroy families. They turn to crime. They put other people in danger. They make bad decisions, stick around in violent relationships, have children they're in no position to raise. They get sick. They don't work. The ripple effects of their addictions go on and on and on. Eventually, their problems become our problem—big time. This is the inconvenient truth for anyone who chooses to see addiction simply as a failure of personal responsibility. It doesn't matter if you're right, because scorn isn't a solution. And moral high ground isn't much of a consolation when an addict robs you at gunpoint, or runs your car off the road or breaks your mother's heart.
HBO's massive new documentary series "Addiction," which premieres on Thursday has many astonishing revelations to share about our country's drug and alcohol crisis. But there's one point above all that it desperately wishes to communicate: whether we accept it or not, we're all paying for the scourge of addiction, and the price tag is only going up. To hammer home the gravity of the struggle, HBO's "Addiction," made in conjunction with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is a jumbo-sized affair. With 14 parts in all, the series runs for more than seven hours, and it features contributions from some of the biggest names in documentary filmmaking, including Barbara Koppel ("Harlan County USA"), Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight"), Rory Kennedy (HBO's superb recent doc "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib") and directing team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker ("The War Room"). There are also additional segments available on HBO.com and HBO-on-Demand, plus a 251-page hardcover book—just in case, after seven hours, you are so addicted to "Addiction" that you still want more.
The sprawling scope of "Addiction" is both its greatest virtue and its only real weakness. This is grim material, and it's hard to imagine anyone having the fortitude to plow through all of it. The series kicks off with a 90-minute introductory portion that summarizes what's to come via brief snapshots of each director's short film. Frankly, this primer is all you really need to watch. But even in just an hour and a half, the insight of "Addiction" is astounding. It tackles the issue from every imaginable perspective—from personal portraits of drug abuse, to the science and psychology of addiction, to breakthroughs in the pharmacology of treatment, to the frustrating politics of government aid and the cruelty of spotty insurance coverage. It's a series that screams from the rooftops but never hectors. Producers John Hoffman and Susan Froemke respect the audience enough to let us make our own connections between, for instance, the mangled, drug-and-alcohol-related accident victims in Jon Alpert's film "Saturday Night in a Dallas ER" and the booze-ravaged tough guys in Koppel's poignant film "Steamfitters Local Union 638," about a Queens, N.Y., union so historically stained by alcoholism that its leaders decided enough was enough.
The fight against addiction is uphill, and steep, because so many people persist in seeing it as the product of weak people making poor choices: addicts chose to try drugs (or alcohol) in the first place and they choose, again and again, to come back to them, even after their habits have ruined their lives. But "Addiction" makes plain that the first choice is, by now, beside the point—and the second really isn't a choice at all. HBO's provocative tagline for the series is, "Why can't they just stop?" Once you watch it, you'll never ask that question again.