New Era Drugs and Death

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

17 thoughts on “New Era Drugs and Death”

  1. The passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 created a crisis among addicted people who were using addictive patent medicines. The contents were often mysterious and included opium. The story of Coca Cola containing cocaine has been repeated so often I’m not sure it is true.

    In the 1890s the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, which was distributed to millions of Americans homes, offered a syringe and a small amount of cocaine for $1.50.[6]

    The Sherlock Holmes stories include a “Seven percent solution” of cocaine as a relaxant for Holmes. Eventually, the country housewives got off the opium addictions and there was a reaction that made narcotics very socially unacceptable for decades. There was a good WSJ article about this years ago that I cannot find online. The pressure of culture controlled narcotics until the 1960s when culture began to lose its power.

    I remember patients asking me in the 70s if there was any harm in using cocaine. Their friends were doing it and it seemed harmless. It wasn’t. Cocaine is very addictive and some early physicians who were experimenting with local anesthesia became addicted. William Halsted was one and he was a secret morphine addict until he died. Many lost their careers. The creation of procaine, called “Novocaine,” avoided the problems with local anesthesia.

    I have an extensive sad experience with addiction including a family member who committed suicide. The County Hospital was, and is, filled with them. The directors of homeless shelters tell me that 60% of homeless are addicts of drugs or alcohol. 60% are psychotic and half of each group is both.

  2. Mike K
    The directors of homeless shelters tell me that 60% of homeless are addicts of drugs or alcohol. 60% are psychotic and half of each group is both.

    Over a year ago the cops got called to roust out a homeless person sleeping by the pool at my condo complex. I knew this guy was a drinker, because I had previously seen him outside the complex chugging down beers with someone else. The cop gave the homeless person a stern talking-to, informing him that he would be liable for arrest if he were caught on the property again. It worked, because the homeless person hasn’t been seen since- neither in nor near the complex.

    After the homeless person went on his way, the cop told us that in his experience, a lot to most of the homeless persons he encountered were alcoholics.

  3. “a lot to most of the homeless persons he encountered were alcoholics.”

    In Los Angeles, about half are cocaine addicts. I used to take my students on a tour of the shelters and for a few years we had a guide who had been homeless when he was a crack addict. He got clean and was working for the city. He would take us around as a volunteer. He knew a lot of the homeless people from his days as an addict. He showed us his patch of sidewalk which is in downtown LA beneath a mural of Florence Griffith Joiner. He said he used to lie there and watch her run.

    One night we went with him to the Midnight Mission where he was a speaker for “Cocaine Anonymous.” He was a big black guy and a spellbinding speaker. We were the only white faces in the place, A very powerful talk.

    We would go to a several shelters and he would take us to some homeless camps. He always warned us not to go there without him.

    Eventually, he got married and promoted to a new job in the San Fernando Valley and we lost him as a guide.

    I took the students there to show them where their patients lived. There is no point in prescribing meds that have to be refrigerated to someone who lives in a box.

    The stuff you read about homeless children is all BS. The families with children are immediately snatched off the street and moved into apartment like shelters.

    The only exceptions are parents too crazy to come in for help.

  4. I have some experience living in Baltimore when I was growing up. The street people and panhandlers were alcoholics and addicts, and I certainly believe that at least half were psychotic.

    I had an an aunt who became addicted to prescription meds in the 70’s and it destroyed her marriage and then her life. When my kids were growing up we spent a lot of time together since we took them with us virtually everywhere and always engaged them in conversation, so we always maintained a good rapport. As they got older, I discussed with them my experience with marijuana and the availability to me of narcotics, which I generally avoided (I smoked some opium saturated marijuana a few times when I was 16). I tried to impress on them how incredibly addictive narcotics were, and that a little experimentation could lead to a life of addiction from which they could never escape. I told them I didn’t mind if they experimented with marijuana under safe circumstances, but stay away from everything else. I was successful. It’s said that a parent has the most influence on a child’s life and I believe that.

    I’m not sure what the answer is to alcoholic, or drug addicted, or psychotic homeless people. I have no faith the government could run any sort facility that wasn’t simply a prison. I’d be curious if private charities could house them more humanely, assuming it were legal to impound them there as we used to do. I recall seeing a documentary on privately run orphanages and how successful they were in raising stable adults, much better results than were attained through foster homes.

  5. I had a classmate at Dartmouth who was raised in foster care. She told me she would have preferred to be in an orphanage. She was an obviously intelligent young woman getting a master’s degree at an Ivy League college.

    The first chapter of my memoir, War Stories, describes my own experiences as a first year medical student working in a VA psychiatric hospital in 1962.

  6. From the viewpoint of the elite, drug addiction is perfect. The addict is passive and lost in his own world. Unemployed or unemployable, he is one less body competing for the ever shrinking supply of good jobs. Not only that but he can be jailed and his property can be confiscated at the drop of a hat. In addition, the war against drugs justifies the militarization of the police.

    I blame the century long war of leftism to destroy the family, religious congregations, and personal and local responsibility. A world where the state is not everybody’s mom is a world where addiction is countered by responsibility to family, church, and community. Make men isolated, irresponsible, and unemployed, and watch them turn to drugs and drink to dull the pain of isolation, purposelessness, and despair.

  7. I have a young teen and we have the drug talk quite often and I make her watch Drugs, Inc. to see how these people’s lives are ruined. It appears that the crowd that she is with know who the “stoners” are in the high school and stay away from them. Most of the kids seem to be too concerned about grades and band and all the rest to have time for the stuff. At least that is my hope.

  8. Ha ha Dan that is great that you use Drugs Inc. as an educational tool. I would not have thought about that. It is very true to life.

    One element of Drugs Inc that they focus on is that many women, too are addicted to drugs. The women are generally prostitutes in order to support their habits, and boy do they work hard for their money. No matter the weather or conditions, they are out there – because they need to score. I read a Vice interview with a prostitute once and she said that they were all addicted to some sort of drug, took it as a given. Likely this is a hard area to research due to the confluence of two major underground economies – drugs and prostitution – both of which are tolerated but then not… There is another National Geographic show called “Black Markets” I believe but it was too dark even for me, had a lot of human trafficking and the like.

    It is absolutely true that these people drop out of the work force and become marginalized from society. As far as shame, I think the individuals are filled with self loathing, but they are not systemically shamed nor helped by society at large. They seem to steal from those that they are closest to until they are either thrown in jail or thrown out of the house. I have family friends who have to keep their own home under lock and key so that their own children won’t steal and sell their “pawn-able” belongings (which turns out to be almost anything).

    This is a different thread in a way but the middle class is not something that you can stay in unless you hustle nowadays. I think it is easy to fall down to the bottom rung if you jump off the education and work track – unless your family continually bails you out, there is no bottom.

  9. I work a couple of days a week, interviewing and examining military recruits. The vast majority are kids 18 to 25 who are not going to college or at least not to four year college.

    A few observations on this population.

    I have yet to interview an Asian kid who has used marijuana. We assume about 50% of teenagers use it but not Asians. Asians make up around 20% (I estimate, I have no data) of applicants. The majority are Chinese or Korean and most are not citizens. They join to get citizenship and many for GI Bill aid to college later.

    Probably 50% are Hispanic. This is Los Angeles, after all.

    I also see female applicants and they tend to be older.

    When I see high school kids, about age 17, I assume they are joining the Marine Corps. Almost all are.

    I enjoy talking to the kids and the vast majority are the salt of the earth. We don’t see that many fat kids but I have seen a few who have lost 100 pounds to be able to join.

    I assume the recruiters screen out those unlikely to be eligible. Rarely do we see anyone with a real drug history and they are either not interested or were screened out by recruiters.

    We see close to 100 applicants a day and LA is the busiest center in the country.

  10. Although common now to condemn Prohibition, its goal of reducing the role of drink and of drinking as a common activity in American life succeeded. Prior to Prohibition, people used to drink at work.

    Similarly, the War on Tobacco (not really called that) seems to have worked well enough.

    Why the War on Drugs failed will be discussed for centuries.

  11. I’m not sure what the answer is to alcoholic, or drug addicted, or psychotic homeless people.

    We count ourselves merciful and compassionate because we watch and witness people destroy their lives.

    Doing nothing effectual is called “hope,” the hope that somehow a higher power will intervene.

    There is no humane solution, nor is there a solution with which we can live. Execution and abandoned imprisonment are used elsewhere. We choose puking in gutters and dying emergency rooms.

  12. Gurray’s links reminds me of a book I read years ago, courtesy of a roommate who read it for one of his classes: The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. Apparently at one time our ancestors – at least our ancestors were in the US before 1860- were rather heavy drinkers. It puts another perspective on Prohibition, though it should be pointed out that the heavy drinking stopped a half century or so before Prohibition.

  13. The reason the Pilgrims stopped in Massachusetts is because they ran out of beer. It was much safer than drinking water, although there were problems with storage and transport on long voyages. Around the mid 18th century, sailors’ beer ration was replaced with a daily half pint of rum. It lasted in the Royal Navy until the 1970s.

    I believe that was also about the same time when beer was banned in FDNY firehouses. There used to be a 2 beer maximum per shift rule for New York firefighters, which was probably treated more like a loose guideline.

  14. We are chemical beings. We love to fool with our chemistry as it’s effects are what lead us around. Love, all kinds of fear and our response to emergent states all depend on our chemistry adjusting our systems to deal with reality.

    Fooling with our own chemistry is ancient and will go on into the future. Just eating a meal causes changes that affect our attitude and outlook. The strong stuff is just gravy. As with all things one ingests, one should try to avoid hurting oneself.

    Many people drink as their method of changing their chemical state, to one they have learned to enjoy. That’s fine in moderation as with almost anything. As with almost anything, continued heavy indulgence will cause long term effects, that are nothing like what you learned to enjoy.

    Now serious drugs, and alcohol is one, have consequences. Managing them is how you play with them. Some things are very nasty but fun for some people. Crystal Meth will remove about 10 IQ points a year, but is so addictive a large population is getting dumber fast. I have known junkies who quit and claimed cigarettes were harder to stop as they are such a nickel and dime thing. It’s intensely personal, drug use.

    In Canada in the late 80s we tossed our crazy people under a bus. Removed most clinical mental care and emptied out the asylums. It was to save money as far as I can tell. This and the influx of more serious drugs has produced a situation in some of our cities not unlike what you have in your country. We are hoping to turn some of that around with Pierre’s kid, but it’s all uphill.

    Me, I like nice Scotch and fine heat and pressure extracted terpenes. As I grow my own, and squeeze my own, I have a very high quality, and very clean extract, that I vaporize. An very safe way to change my chemistry around, rather a lot, or so I’m told by those I hoot with. Hoot is our term for vaporizing stuff.

  15. Grurray Says:
    January 18th, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I am surprised by the summary of the Opium Wars in the New York Times. It was incomplete, but basically accurate; not something I expect from the Times. There were important details of the Chinese seizure and destruction of the opium from British “factories” [warehouses run by “trade factors”] that were skipped. But it was surprisingly honest.

    I would add something that came from the American involvement in the opium trade beyond FDR’s family wealth. The American diplomat Caleb Cushing was American Minister to China in 1844 and negotiated the Treaty of Wanghia. It basically was piggy-backing on the British “Unequal Treaties”, and gave the United States all the privileges that the other Western powers had extracted without the effort of going to war. A key thing that Cushing inserted, which was copied by all of the other European Powers was “Extraterritoriality”.

    Short form, it was a statement that Chinese law was too “uncivilized” to hold Americans [and later all Westerners] to. So Americans in China, in or outside the Treaty Ports, were immune to and could not be charged for any crime committed in China. In theory, they would be charged and punished later when they returned to the West. If you believe that happened, I have a bridge over the Yangtze I might be willing to part with.

    To make it “equitable”, Chinese Nationals in the United States were not covered by American law. As in they had no recourse to the courts, and were not considered human beings under American law unless they had diplomatic status. We were literally legally not considered to be people.

    The United States was the last country to give up Extraterritorial status. That was in 1943, and was as a result of the locals in Pueblo, Colorado [where Chinese aircrews at Pueblo Army Airfield were being trained to fly B-24 bombers against the Japanese] treating the aircrews the way they treated other Chinese in the United States. The Nationalist Chinese government took exception, and protested. On May 20, 1943, the US gave up Extraterritoriality, and Chinese in this country became legally human beings.

    I have a personal connection because my then-12 year old father came to this country alone just before the Great Depression. As soon as we became legally human, he enlisted in the Army, and as a decorated infantry squad leader he was granted citizenship.

    I would also note that Chinese foreign policy is influenced even today by the memories of that time. I promise you, no one holds grudges longer than we Chinese.

  16. I didn’t see the Times piece but tend to follow James Clavell’s version in “Tai Pan” which blamed the Chinese monopoly on tea. The English began drinking tea, no doubt as a way to avoid cholera and other consequences of bad water in England. The French seem to have chosen wine. The Chinese emperor required payment in silver ingots and the only way the English could complete the trade cycle was by addicting Chinese to opium and selling opium for silver ingots, called “taels”. The opium was grown in India or Afghanistan. Eventually, the Hong Kong traders smuggled tea plants out of China and broke the monopoly. Tea was then grown in India as it is today.

    That story is a large part of his Hong Kong series of novels. I have no way to verify the truth of it. I have read the history of Hong Kong and his Japan books are considered quite accurate. A friend’s Japanese speaking mother-in-law loved the TV series from Shogun as it was well done in Japanese.

    It’s interesting that the basic story of Shogun, the Englishman becoming wrecked in Japan and staying for years, is true. I have the book about the story. He eventually made his way back to England, a part omitted by Clavell, and the association between the British Navy and Japan stemmed from that event.

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