One of the most fascinating shows that I watch is called “Drugs, Inc.” on National Geographic, which describes the “business” of drugs from its creation (chemicals) or growth (agriculture), through transportation (to America or Europe) and then to distribution (street level), along with interviews with drug abusers and their families. I did a blog post about this show here if you are interested.
Unlike television shows with a “narrative arc” of redemption, the business of Drugs, Inc. shows users as ever-insatiable and ever-addicted to the various drugs that are investigated by the show. Drug dealers are meeting demand that exists and is never questioned; the only risks to the dealer are competition from other cartels / distributors or the police. The fact that demand will always be there assuming the quality of the product is solid is taken as a given.
When they interview addicts their lives are not glamorous and often are morose and filled with regrets. The addicts may take an hour to find a place on their body to inject the drug, they steal from their own families, and they live brutal and dangerous lives in order to acquire the cash to make the next fix. The traditional high school movies that tried to scare you off drugs have nothing on this systematic and pragmatic approach to just watching the destroyed lives of drug users as they live to support their next fix.
Most of the users on Drugs, Inc. are white, and often the dealers / growers / distributors are people of color. This mirrors the actual demographics of drugs; in most shows the dealers will exult at the earning power of their clients because it just means more opportunities for them to profit. Dealers and gangs only care about cash, so selling to the relatively poorer minorities in their midst doesn’t bring the same profits as tourists, tech workers, Wall street workers, or those with higher paying work.
The “flip” side of this only becomes clearer as you watch the show more and more – what is the cost of these drugs on society, and who are these mostly white people who buy all of the drugs? While society and TV sees drugs often through the high profile individuals who’ve “gotten clean” or the tragic figures that “couldn’t escape”, the math seems to be far more in favor of those that cannot escape due to high rates of relapse and the increased power and purity of modern drugs.
The New York Times provided an analysis that seems to fill in this gap in my understanding titled “Drug Overdoses Propel Rise In Mortality Rates of Young Whites“.
The drug overdose numbers were stark. In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35-44 year-old whites tripled during that period. The numbers cover both illegal and prescription drugs.
When I was in high school and college few talked about prescription drugs and heroin was something that the Velvet Underground talked about in songs from the 60’s. However, the rise of prescription painkillers and their addictive properties apparently created a new generation that became hooked on those drugs. When the authorities made prescription drugs harder to find, powerful and purer heroin was a readily available substitute, enriching the drug cartels further.
A couple of my good friends fell into this trap, although I didn’t see nor understand it at the time. The addictive power of these drugs cannot be underestimated, whether it is prescribed or bought from an illegal dealer. If you think about it most of us probably known one or more individuals who have been ensnared in this lifestyle at some point.
Now I can see the real narrative arc of the characters in Drugs Inc. who sullenly go through an entire life revolving around their next fix; for most of them, it is death. This doesn’t make for good TV, and even Drugs Inc. doesn’t focus heavily on the deaths (they are watching the customers as they buy and use the drugs, and the vast majority of time this doesn’t end in a deadly overdose).
Cross posted at LITGM