Compassion Project

Ameer Mabjish’s documentary explores the heroin crisis from a humanitarian viewpoint

Published in 2024 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine

By Ameer Mabjish on December 28, 2023

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It began with our country’s most recent heroin epidemic, which created an explosion in the criminal justice system of heroin-addicted people charged with crimes. It began with the repeated argument that fell on the deaf ears of many prosecutors and judges for years: We cannot incarcerate our way out of drug addiction. It began with the daily frustration of fighting against incarceration and harsher penalties for people charged with crimes directly related to untreated substance abuse. It began with the heartbreaking stories of families destroyed by consequences of the heroin epidemic—ruined careers, overdose deaths and over-criminalization. Motivated by empathy and frustration, in 2012 I originated and began producing a documentary about the heroin epidemic in an effort to learn, build awareness, provoke action and inspire hope.

I began my legal career in 2007 as a public defender with the Covington Trial Office of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. Over the next few years, heroin-related cases flooded our caseloads and court dockets with people and their families who clearly needed help, not felony convictions and prison.
Many local prosecutors, judges and law enforcement maintained the outdated attitude proselytized by the failed “war on drugs” approach, that the heroin epidemic could be solved with harsher consequences for drug offenders. There was a general lack of awareness in the community related to how the criminal justice system was dealing with the epidemic and substance abuse generally. In a system that favored harsher penalties over treatment, overdose deaths continued to skyrocket.

It sometimes felt hopeless as a young public defender with hundreds of drug-addicted clients, repeatedly advocating for such broad changes in beliefs and the system, one case at a time, in front of a small courtroom audience. My idea to produce a documentary was a way to reach a much greater audience. The film sparked the interest of news media, government officials, political groups, law enforcement and other organizations. During the filming alone, we were able to reach a great number of people in the community and create positive interactions and education.

I learned that there isn’t one solution to the epidemic. And the most consistent thing I saw that helped people succeed was just having support from somebody who cared—mostly family. As long as somebody didn’t give up on them, it seemed like people were more likely not to give up on themselves.

At the time, as a full-time public defender with no knowledge or experience producing documentaries, I sought help from friends and family who worked in film production in Los Angeles, including my sister, who graduated with a degree from the Media Production Division of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. In 2014, award-winning journalist and documentarian Soledad O’Brien took interest in our project and officially completed the final production, which aired as a news documentary in 2015 on the Al-Jazeera America network.

That same year, I started my private law practice; in 2022, Daniel Schubert joined as a partner after leaving his position as directing attorney of the Covington public defender’s office. We continue our advocacy through Mabjish & Schubert Law, which focuses its practice on criminal defense and personal injury cases in Kentucky and Ohio state and federal courts. The documentary Heroin USA: A Soledad O’Brien Special Report is available for public streaming at no charge under ‘Ameer’s Bio’ on our website, MabjishLaw.com. 

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