Conrad Weaver didn’t plan to focus on heroin. The Emmitsburg filmmaker’s first full-length documentary, “The Great American Wheat Harvest,” followed farmers and their families as they traveled from Texas to the Canadian border during harvest season. His second also dealt with agriculture — specifically, the effect of extreme drought on crops in the West.
It wasn’t until Weaver saw a friend’s Facebook post about her son’s struggle with addiction that he became fully aware of the opioid epidemic in Frederick County. Soon afterward, other friends contacted him to inform him that their son was using heroin.
“It devastated me,” Weaver said, leaning back in a chair in his home office. “I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve known these people for 12 years.”
His friend’s experiences, combined with a growing number of news reports on heroin addiction across the country, inspired Weaver to explore the effects of the drug on camera. He’s now in the middle of production on “Heroin’s Grip,” a documentary that will examine the spread of heroin and other opioids in Frederick County.
The film, which he hopes to wrap by September, examines the issue from several standpoints. There are interviews with health care workers and addicts and their families, who explain the medical and personal side of addiction. Weaver also worked with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office to cover the work done by law enforcement. In the past few months, Weaver has gone on ride-alongs with deputies, interviewed officers and collected footage from the scenes of fatal overdoses.
“The issue of heroin and opioids is still in the forefront, and I thought his work was an important way to get the message out,” Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said. “I just hope it’ll have an impact on people and make a big splash.”
Circle of supporters
Also backing Weaver’s work is a group of women personally affected by the epidemic, who have similar hopes for the film’s success.
“I hope at some point it will erase the stigma that’s attached to addiction,” said Caressa Flannery, a Frederick native and the owner of the local company Create-a-Pulse Marketing. “That’s our biggest hurdle — that people want to toss addicts aside instead of treating it like a health issue.”
Flannery, 51, was the friend whose Facebook post first alerted Weaver to the immediacy of the opioid crisis in Frederick County. In February 2015, her son, Dylan, was arrested in an undercover heroin operation and served time in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center. The news coverage of the event prompted Flannery to post about her son’s eight-year struggle with addiction, an issue she had previously kept hidden.
“Because I’m so active in the community, I just wanted to put it out there,” Flannery said. “It seemed like it was necessary to come clean with it all.”
Both she and Dylan were interviewed for the film, and Flannery has been helping the production by finding other people willing to speak with Weaver. She hopes that the completed documentary is screened in schools and treatment centers, but she also wants the documentary to fight misconceptions about the people who become addicted.
“I guess I hope it kind of hits you in the face, because there’s a stereotype of the people who we think get addicted to heroin,” Flannery said. “But it’s not that stereotype. It’s people like you and me.”
Carin Miller, president and co-founder of the Maryland Heroin Awareness Advocates, is helping with funding for the film. Donations for the project go through her organization, and she’s also become personally invested in the documentary.
Miller, a Mount Airy resident, said she spent years watching her husband and son battle addictions to prescription painkillers and heroin, respectively. Even after they got clean, she decided to keep up the fight against the drugs. Her advocacy group has raised funds for prevention efforts, testified on legislation in Annapolis and, most recently, raised enough money for a billboard in front of the Frederick County Adult Detention Center that shares up-to-date numbers on overdoses across the county.
“By this time, I thought I’d have all my children raised and be with my husband of 32 years, going on vacation,” said Miller, 56. “But I can’t, because there are kids dying all around me.”
Though Maryland Heroin Awareness Advocates are still collecting donations for the film, Weaver is concerned about funding the project. He’s collected around $6,500 in donations, but hopes to raise $100,000 to complete production and market the documentary.
Beyond the expense of running a major film production, Weaver said, are the costs of advertising the finished project and submitting for entry to film festivals — one of his biggest goals for the project.
“My hope is to get it into Sundance,” Weaver said, referring to the independent film festival held annually in Park City, Utah. “Because a lot of families, they don’t know what to do. If my son were using heroin, it would be hard for me to make that public. I really want to help bring the community together because people have been afraid to tell their stories.”
Nancy Wells, a Libertytown resident, also wants wide distribution for the film. After learning about the project a few weeks ago, she now helps Weaver with outreach on behalf of her son, Randy, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island.
“After he died, my motto for myself became, I want to stand out, not stand in,” Wells said. “People need to stop sticking their heads in the sand and saying it doesn’t involve them, because I did that to a certain extent before my son got involved.
“I want these kids clean because I don’t want to see another child die or another parent crying,” she continued. “I want more people to realize — even if it’s only one — what’s happening to our kids. And I think Conrad is trying to do all of this.”