Documentary Review: “Junkie Hunters” fight the drug scourge, one addict at a time, and the greedy Rehab Industry in “American Relapse”


Eye-opening and damning, “American Relapse” is a blunt force look at the “cycle” of opioid addiction and the ways this American epidemic has been monetized by those with an eye towards making a buck out of any bad thing that happens.

Fittingly, Pat McGee and Adam Linkenhelt’s documentary begins with a quote by The Ultimate Capitalist — John D. Rockefeller.

“The Way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets.”

Artfully shot and cleverly edited, “Relapse” turns its lens on Delray Beach, Florida, “The Rehab Capital of America.” And by focusing on two exceptional, compassionate and “involved” “junkie hunters” — essentially street-level “marketers” who find addicts and try to get them help — the film points both to the commitment of the few and the opportunities for abuse by many others in a system that has been feeding on itself for over a decade.

Allie Severino is a 28 year-old recovering addict, a perfectly made-up and coiffed blonde driving around South Florida, which has become a magnet for heroin addicts thanks to the 1200 or more rehab facilities that have opened in the region, looking for junkies she can help get off the street.

The neighborhoods are sketchy, and many of the people she is looking for are passing out under bridges, in clumps of woods behind supermarkets. Severino notes that it’s “my job to be here,” but that as an ex-addict, she’s still into the “thrill seeker” part of the work.

Thanks to changes in health care laws that treat addiction as a disease and a “pre-existing condition,” there’s money to be made — from insurance companies, from Medicaid. People like Allie can earn up to $2,000 commission for getting an addict into detox.

Frankie Holmes is 38, wearing the scars of his years of addiction on his face. Piercings can’t hide the burns.

“My phone never stops ringing,” he says of those, like him, who are calling him for help, men and women “living in active addiction.” He’s just an addict “without the drugs,” he freely admits. His new addictions include the adrenaline rush of tracking down addicts, pitching them on the idea of getting help and at least putting the choice to get sober in front of them.

“I’m not f—–g cured, by any means.”

Knowing that 90% of addicts relapse is one reason Frankie refers to Delray Beach not as “the Rehab capital of America,” but as the “Relapse Capital.” And that fact is why so many under-supervised facilities have opened there, “detox centers” and “sober houses,” hospitals and out-patient treatment facilities.

Allie and Frankie freely speak about the money to be made off these unfortunates, because they’re above that. Their hearts and motives, near as we can tell, are pure and altruistic. But it’s a system, “The Florida Model,” set up to be abused, to be commodified.

“The Florida Model” or “Cycle of Recovery”  breaks down the process of treating an addict into segments of a “business,” each able to charge insurers top dollar for their services. It runs from “Detox” to “Partial Hospitalization” to “Intensive Outpatient” to “Sober Living Facility.”

As Obamacare left it to states to administer this new law, states like Florida allowed cities like Delray Beach to become an insurance scam capital.

This festival award-winning film, which inspired the Vice TV series “Dopesick Nation,” lays out– with graphics, repurposed vintage documentaries explaining “capitalism” and our two tour guides into this underworld — just how this self-feeding monster is fed and who is making money at every step of the process.

Simple “pee tests,” which every facility calls for repeatedly, run into thousands of dollars. Detox costs money, long term care costs more, and on and on down the line.

Facilities have encouraged “junkie hunters” to pay insurance premiums on addicts so that they’re worth luring into the “the Florida Model.”

Recovery Centers and drug testing facilities are experiencing a “gold rush,” and yes, the urine testing is an apt visual metaphor for that — $3500 per cup.

“Testing positive means staying in treatment,” thus the over-testing, giving addicts money to buy drugs so that they test positive and the insurance money keeps rolling in.

“If there’s money to be made off an addict, there are people down here doing it,” Frankie gripes.

As much as $120,000 can be earned, per addict, every three months.

But Frankie and Allie are different. We see him reason with, debate and never give up on this or that addict who “gets into my car” but resists breaking out of “the life.” We witness a late night “sober house” shouting match between Allie, trying to get a couple (who have relapsed so often nobody else will touch them) off the streets, and the manager, another ex-addict who isn’t falling for their act THIS time.

“How many times did YOU relapse?” she shouts at him.

“How many times did YOU relapse?” he shouts back.

The filmmakers built the film out of a long weekend where they follow the two hunters (who don’t work together), using split screens, in-car “counseling” sessions, visits to flops and flop houses, getting in the faces of the addicts Allie and Frankie are trying to help.

“This disease wants us DEAD,” Frankie tells one and all.

And still, here’s a guy shooting up in his ankle like the expert that he is — “three or four years” into addiction, dully answering Frankie’s battery of questions — “Have you lost a lot of friends out here? You got a place to stay tonight?”

It’s easy to see how this film inspired the TV series — it opens can after can of worms, inviting further storytelling — and it’s going to be hard to look at Delray Beach, with its sand, beach, condos, drawbridges, yachts and heroin junkies, the same way again.

“American Relapse” opens with the duo making their rounds, hunters into the “rush” of hunting for people to help, and ends with a funeral. In between, co-directors McGee and Linkenhelt give us a lot to chew on about this self-manufactured crisis, even if the film never quite builds the empathy that perhaps the follow-up series managed.


MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic scenes of drug abuse, profanity

Cast: Allie Severino, Frankie Holmes

Credits: Directed by Pat McGee and Adam Linkenhelt. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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