“Drugs, Inc.” – the Most Important Show on Television

“Drugs, Inc.” is a television show on the National Geographic Channel that focuses on the business of drugs, from producers to traffickers to users to police. I can’t recommend this show enough and I watch every episode that comes up on my DVR.

Welcome to the $300 billion industry of Drugs, Inc., where traffickers pocket huge profits, addicts become chained in a vicious cycle and law enforces wage war across diverse battlefields – farmers’ fields, shady labs, urban street corners and suburban schools. How does this business work? Can it be stopped or should it be regulated? What impact does it have on those it touches?

Drugs Inc somehow gets interviews with drug dealers and drug traffickers. They are always wearing a mask of some sort and often their voices are garbled electronically. It isn’t clear to me why they agree to be on TV or why the authorities don’t follow up on the leads from the program or subpoena their records. I can’t comment on the authenticity but it certainly seems real, especially the interviews with the users or “fiends” as they are described by the dealers on the series.

The first thing that the show will do for you is change how you look at homeless people. All of the users on the show are either 1) drug dealers themselves likely far down the chain in order to support their habit 2) panhandlers or some sort of schemer / prostitute. There occasionally are recreational users or those with jobs but since they typically interview hard-core drug users many of those individuals can’t do a regular 9 to 5 job.

The panhandlers are a relentless lot. They wake up in various places, sometimes in their cars, sometimes in a tent, sometimes in an abandoned building, or elsewhere. When they get up, it is time to make some money in order to buy some drugs. They always know exactly what they are doing and have a target amount of money to “earn” in order to score what they need to stave off dope sickness.

When they hit their target number, they either hit a drug house (or “trap” in the lingo) or call / text their dealer and start off on the trek to obtain the drugs. Then the show follows the user as they go into a public toilet or an alley or a house somewhere and shoot up (for heroin). I usually look away as they do the drugs because it can be gruesome especially for long time users where they can’t find a vein anymore. One of the prostitutes spent over an hour looking for a spot that worked (per the show) and another prostitute lamented when she had to use a vein on her forehead because it hurt her earning power.

For a bit right after they get their “hit” the panhandlers / prostitutes are momentarily happy and lucid. Often they lament their state and say that this helps take the pain away from their predicament. They might say that once they did well in school or had a wife and a family but now they are a strung-out junkie and they can’t believe that their life ended up like this.

One element of the show that is particularly noteworthy is that there isn’t usually the typical “story arc” of 1) have a problem 2) struggle to overcome the problem 3) leave on a note of happy resolution. In Hawaii they followed a crystal meth user who lived at home with his mom; the previous day he tried to hang himself. They interviewed him the next day and he stole his mom’s car and sold it for cash to pay for meth. And that’s the end of the show. Another time they interviewed a male prostitute who ran out of money and had been off drugs for 4 days, long enough that he was no longer very sick. He scored some money and talked to the interviewer about how he ought to just get out of there and get his life together but instead he was going to take this money, find his dealer, and get some drugs. And that’s what he did.

You will also gain a deep appreciation for the bloodthirsty efficiency of the Mexican drug cartels. These cartels have apparently cornered the US market on many types of drugs and operate an enormous network of Mexican nationals across the USA. They interview many individuals associated with the market and they routinely make comments like “a woman trafficker was talking about quitting so they pulled her out of the car and cut her head off right in front of me” or “If my drug shipments keep getting intercepted they will kill me”. Several of the episodes were in Mexico and they interviewed a drug enforcer with an assault rifle who was heading out to eliminate someone that the cartel wanted dead and he said he had killed many with that gun. It seemed very real. The police that they interviewed also had praise for the power of the cartels and their ability to isolate the local dealers into “cells” and keep all parts of their chain (from supply to trafficking to dealing to money laundering) apart from one another so it was very difficult for the police to get individuals to “flip” and go higher up the chain of command.

I highly recommend this show and think it represents great journalism. Their reporters are on helicopters in the jungle raiding poppy fields and in the most dangerous neighborhoods in the USA talking to drug dealers and users. However they get this show done, I don’t always understand, but it is always riveting.

Cross posted at LITGM

19 thoughts on ““Drugs, Inc.” – the Most Important Show on Television”

  1. A fascinating post.

    Very interesting the harm that criminalization of pharmaceutical does. The show seems to do a great job of the misery those who are self-medicating must go through. And also the way that criminalization empowers Mexican gangs in the US.

    It looks like some episodes are available on Netflix, I’ll check it out!

  2. Interesting. When I have looked into the homeless in Los Angeles for the education of my students, they are, according to the people who run shelters, 60% psychotic, 60% drug and alcohol addicts and half of each group is both. About 10% of homeless are situational and most are only that way for short periods, living in their cars, etc.

    I’ll look for the show.

  3. By reducing the amount of money that people have to get in order to afford their drugs, it’s going to reduce criminality because more benign activity like panhandling will be able to support more drug addict lifestyles but also increase the speed which these people slowly kill themselves because they’re unlikely to involuntarily give their bodies a respite from the drugs because that day they couldn’t make enough money to put drugs inside their bodies. Overall, the reduction in 3rd party damage makes legalization worth the costs in my view but there will be real economic and human costs to the policy of legalizing drugs that the conventional pro-legalization crowd tends to gloss over. Read the Netflix reviews of the show to get a flavor of that problem.

  4. I would go farther than simple legalization.

    In this exceptional case I’m in favor of “assisted suicide”. Do paperwork, register as a hopeless addict, get your daily –steadily increasing — heroin dose, trade out used for clean needles, and be provided a quiet, easily cleaned, cell-like room with a cot upon which to enjoy your high, and soon enough your last dying breath. Sign here.

    In this exceptional case I’d like a government run project instead of a market-and-trade based scheme. (The government will as always lose money, of course, but will have as always fewer results — in this case, “results” being dead addicts.) But perhaps a faith or sect with no great scruple against suicide would run the program as a charity, on donations, in the basement below the sanctuary. (Or redefine the term “sanctuary” to mean the rooms with the cots for the private use of the needles.)

    Maybe some cities’ or sects’ programs would require the walking addicts to help carry the litters of the dead addicts out of the cells and to the incinerator…

    I think registered addicts forfeit their vote, their right to own weapons, their right to drive vehicles, and other fundamental aspects of citizenship. But I think a real addict would happily trade citizenship for a steady supply, so no great hardship there. I would not require that a faith-based charity demand that a registered addict surrender claims to whatever sacraments are offered — but I would not require officiants to provide such sacraments to addicts, either. Let the disciplines of the faith itself guide their rules about sacrifice — but my faith in governance is such that I regard addicts a POOR citizens and untrustworthy for the rights and duties I claim myself.

    I tend to think trainee medical people would benefit from the practice of “sticking” the intravenous needles into an addicts body — again, the addict might find it a fair exchange for a clean needle and safe fix, while the medical technicians perhaps would like to have a practice patient who is less likely to complain.

    It is an unpleasant thought to suppose that some addicts would attempt to register while under-age. Perhaps the laws and traditions governing abortion, in their variety across various jurisdictions, apply. A state that allows minors to obtain abortion without parental consent extends the option of state-assisted suicide-by-heroin to minors, while a state that requires parental or court consent to abortion would also then require an adult’s consent to a minor’s participation in the suicide program.

    I suppose some addicts, after registration, might actually decide to reduce their daily dosage — even wean themselves slowly off their habit. A process of de-registration might eventually become necessary.
    A participant who fails of the standard suicide process and wants to de-registered as an addict and recover voting rights, etc … well, that’s a bridge we’ll cross later, I think.

    Initially the suicide sanctuaries will need to be heavily guarded against the cartels. This is a start-up cost which I think we can reduce as the program goes along.

    I would allow many now incarcerated for DEA-related offenses to reduce jail time and regain some freedom of movement, and association, in exchange for registering as addicts and showing routine progress through the assisted-suicide program. Failure to show up for the daily dose, of course, would revoke parole and result in a return to full custody.

  5. In a similar vein, this was really good:

    Riveting. But depressing too.

    The libertarian in me thinks we should legalize drugs, that society has no business telling people what they may or may may do to their bodies and also has no business controlling people’s decision for their own perceived good.

    On the other hand, drugs change people. They change their behavior, their perceptions, their neurological responses, their motivations and their resultant actions. And addictions, once developed, can remain for life, so the effects are felt for decades.

    In the end, I think you need to decide if the cost of drug war, in monetary terms and human terms, is greater or less than the cost borne by addictions and lost lives. I think I would vote for legalization, but it’s not an easy choice, obviously.

  6. The funny thing is… most of the current problems today were caused by a LEGAL drug that was supposed to be non-addicting… Oxycontin. A ton of people got addicted to this drug or something like it and when the Feds finally started cracking down, then a lot of those same people moved over to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to find.

    Deaths from overdoses of these types of drugs are now more than auto accidents and are very common even in what were once middle class areas.

    I think if you watch the show the lives of these addicts are so pathetic… they have to steal and beg to live because soon they are alienated from their own family and children. For the women, they are prostitutes. A vice article a long time ago pretty much said that every prostitute was addicted or heavily engaged in drugs.

    The real issue for me is what to do with all these people… the “fiends” as they call them on the show…. we’d need to block off Soldier Field and fill it with addicts and let them all dry out but what then? A huge percent just end up relapsing. Also they are an enormous drain on social services and the ER because they are killing themselves slowly or not so slowly and eventually die out there.

  7. Once you are wired on a body drug it’s very rare that anyone gets away. I helped one friend many years ago to beat methadrine, he did he work, but it’s rare anyone gets better. They usually spiral down through cheaper drugs and die early to very early. That’s where the terminal population in the news comes from.

    I beat nicotine a long time ago and it was a multi year war that did the trick, I would not give up, and that is what you need to get off a body drug. That kind of determination gets destroyed early in a serious drug career.

    I have to drive to Qualicum soon, the 1% town not far from here, and spend about 25% of what I need to make it to the end of the month, on a bag of coffee. Now it’s Ethiopian Welinso and I need it to feed my Expresso machine, so it’ll be worth it.


  8. With the wars and equivalent-of-wars the US government has been declaring in the 20th and 21st centuries, you’d think by now the consequences of declaring wars you have no intention of winning. All the phony wars were for show, to make politicians look important, and in that respect alone, they worked.

  9. “a cot upon which to enjoy your high, and soon enough your last dying breath. Sign here.”

    Morphine-like drug addiction involves a process called “tachyphylaxis” in which the body requites more drug to get the same effect but the fatal overdoses usually involve someone who was in jail and couldn’t get the drug so went through withdrawal. Now, he/she needs to start at a lower dose, just about what it was when they started. Many do not know enough about this and go back to the dose they were using before they went through withdrawal. That does produces sudden death from overdose.

    There are addicts who lead functional lives as long as they don’t have to commit crime to get money for the drug. The IV drug users can run out of veins and get into trouble with IV sites but many can get by with clean drugs.

    Any comment on this that I make does not apply to cocaine which is too dangerous to be legal.

    Methamphetamine and all the “designer drugs” are also too dangerous to be legal.

  10. Meth’s close chemical cousin, Adderal, is a prescription drug for attention deficit disorder and is regularly prescribed to college students. It has a side-effect of euphoria.

    Meth itself is on schedule II because it is an effective diet drug.

    Cocaine is a stimulant, as is caffeine or khat.

    The most dangerous part of the war on drugs are the criminalization of market behavior, and the banning of basic health, safety, and labeling regulations.

    Some underclass of people cannot handle some psychoactive stimulation. Imagine how much poorer our world would be if our response to people who could not handle alcohol (like, say, Rober Ebert) was to criminalize them, instead of helping them dry out and live productive lives.

  11. The libertarian rule is this: if big money is involved in it, then there is no purpose in regulating it because the regulators will be corrupted, and nobody wants a corrupt government. Better to have a corrupt citizenry instead.

    It appears the experiment will be run. Every side thinks it knows what the answer will be. Eventually, maybe, the losers will be disgraced and the dead can say ‘I told you so’ from histories.

    “Adderal, is a prescription drug for attention deficit disorder and is regularly prescribed to college students”

    Prescribing meth to patients by the delusions of psychologists and psychiatrists is not an argument in favor of legalization.

    “Cocaine is a stimulant, as is caffeine or khat”

    Hilarious. And Everest and Wycheproof are both mountains, so climb them with the same gear.

    “The most dangerous part of the war on drugs are the criminalization of market behavior, and the banning of basic health, safety, and labeling regulations”

    Absolutely. After all the dead addicts, corrupted officials, ruined lives, the government paperwork is the real casualty.

  12. As a person with Libertarian leanings, I too struggle with the whole drug thing.

    Not all people are created equal. Keith Richards is famous for burning out his circle of friends (several times) as they did the same stuff as he did, but simply couldn’t keep up. His chemistry is different.

    This sets up my issue with drugs. Who am I so say what someone should or shouldn’t do to themselves, yet it is painfully clear that millions of lives are being ruined by many different drugs. A person I know smokes a joint every night before he goes to bed – he is old and likely only has a decade at best left on the planet and it helps him sleep. He has been through a war and my feeling is, well, god bless him.

    Of course I smell pot at a concert and say to myself “those damned kids” etc. etc.

    It is something I think about frequently, and I am honestly not sure where I land on the whole thing as far as pot goes. With the other harder drugs, I tend to stand against those. It sounds hypocritical I know, but I don’t see why there should be a black and white line on the deal.

  13. ErisGuy,

    Thanks for the comment.

    You seem to use “corrupt” to refer to the human state of caring (both in feelings and in acts) about your family, friends, and loved ones more than one cares for strangers. Don’t understand what your point in this odd usage is.

    Your point, that prescriptions are worthless in understanding the size or utility of a market, is at best only half true. Adderall is useful in improving life-quality and life-outcomes for many.

    Regarding stimulants, if your concern is dosing, then limit dosing. Otherwise, you’re engaged in magical thinking.

    Last, any market contains dispute resolution and exchange regulatory systems. Government paperwork is a relatively low-impact form of those systems. Because of the War on Drugs, alternative, more direct systems have thrived.

  14. Dan from Madison,

    No need for a black-and-white rule. But a rational one may save lives.

    Very few people who cry to criminalize hard drugs advocate criminalizing two of the hardest drugs, alcohol (a depressant, which works by “slowing down” parts of the brain) or nicotine (a particularly addictive drug). The reason seems clear: such a nanny state is obviously ridiculous, would obviously lead to an explosion in crime, and ignores basic reality (a nicotine addiction is relatively cheap, alcohol is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy).

    People think through observation. And many conservatives pretend they believe that federalism makes the states laboratories of democracy. (Or alternatively, these conservatives actually think they believe that, without pondering what such a belief would entail.)

    So the rational, conservative approach is to allow observations in States where voters tolerate those observations. California might very well de-criminalize all drugs. Many counties today ban alcohol. Which leads to more crime? More industry?

    But instead, these big government conservatives recoil from such an idea. Federal bureaucrats must know better!

    Why must lines be black and white, when instead we can determine on a national level which markets to ban, and which rights to take away from the people, and from the states.

    This is especially true when we consider damn kids — that is factions we despise — are enjoying their freedom. Many conservatives act as if the purpose of government was to remove freedom from those it despises. In the War on Drugs, at least, those conservatives have been successful.

  15. Marijuana is ubiquitous. I interview military recruits and we assume that nearly all kids have used marijuana and we multiply by ten the amount they say they have used. Unless they have a high number, it is disregarded in applying for the military. However, use within 6 months will block a security clearance.

    Marijuana will, however, sometimes precipitate psychosis in teenagers. One could argue that the psychosis would have become apparent anyway but it is a concern. It is also, of course, far more harmful than tobacco to lungs.

    The discovery of one of the early effective anti-psychotic drugs was a result of attempts to deal with a large epidemic of amphetamines in Japan after the war. The Japanese army used lots of amphetamines to allow its troops to fight at night and to deal with fatigue. Large stocks were left after the war ended and were a source of abuse. The connection is troubling.

    The story of Haldol and its discovery does not mention Japan but that was the beginning.

  16. Dan,

    “…yet it is painfully clear that millions of lives are being ruined by many different drugs.”

    And none of those people is helped by the War on Drugs. If anything, drug prohibition makes the situation worse, since seeking help with an addiction risks involving law enforcement.

    If I thought for a minute that drug prohibition were protecting people, I would have the same libertarian ethical conflict as you. But that’s clearly not the situation we are in.

    And don’t even get me started on asset forfeiture, the costs of mass incarceration, and all the other collateral damage that the War on Drugs inflicts on every American.

    I can certainly envision that ending drug prohibition would be a disaster. What I can’t envision is that it would be a worse disaster than the one we’re in the middle of right now.

  17. “Meth itself is on schedule II because it is an effective diet drug.”

    LOL. I have watched my friend do enough Methadrine to kill several people. It takes time to develop the huge heart and other system changes required to do that stuff seriously. It is the best of the speed drugs in that you can do more, for a longer time, than any other real speed. It won’t kill you right away. Whoopie.

  18. Tdaxp ” this is especially true when we consider damn kids — that is factions we despise — are enjoying their freedom.”

    Kids are the last people to give freedom to, but not because we despise them. That’s an unusual, even bizarre, thing to say. Are you a kid, maybe?

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