Grunge, Heroin & Conformity

The passing of grunge rocker Chris Cornell this week means that of the five major bands to emerge from the early 1990s’ grunge scene, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana all have lost lead singers to early deaths.

Only Pearl Jam has not. 

Mostly, these were singers whose lives were mangled by heroin/opiates, whether they died from it or not.

As I read the news, it occurred to me how deeply the grunge scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s swallowed the greatest drug scam ever sold, which is that heroin use is somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society.

The reality is that the drug, more than any other, is about commerce – about cold, hard business — and about enslavement to consumption. All of which, needless to say, is about as low-brow conformist as it comes.

Heroin should have been forgotten not long after it was invented for it has few medicinal benefits that other opiates don’t provide with far less addictive risk. It survived because it was a great drug for traffickers. It was easy to conceal, easy to cut, and it created customers that had to buy the product several times a day. A businessman’s dream.

The drug got its underground cachet beginning with Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist in the 1940s, who died in 1955 at the age of 34, having wasted much of his prodigious creativity in the pursuit of smack, while bringing an entire generation of younger musicians to dope. (Trumpeter Clifford Brown was staking out another path for jazz musicians – one of great devotion to art and improvisation combined with a sober lifestyle – when he was killed in a car accident at age 25.)

Beat writer William Burroughs helped solidify the drug’s reputation as an outsider’s substance.

Heroin got a bigger cultural boost from the Velvet Underground’s first album in 1967 and Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” followed as the years passed by notably addicted rockers like Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and, of course, Keith Richards. So that by the late 1980s, heroin was fully established as the go-to drug for anyone – often a pasty-faced white kid with a rocknroll heart — wanting a personal image as a non-conformist.

To the extent of few others before it, the grunge scene bought this fiction with gusto. Heroin, moreover, seemed the perfect drug for grunge’s nihilistic, dirge-like sound. So an entire scene was created that seemed to emerge from the swamp of the Velvet Underground’s first album. Many others died from it. Grunge did, too.

My music was punk rock and the grunge thing happened later. My focus in life was by then on writing and storytelling and not so much on the latest wrinkle in rocknroll. Grunge was too slow, too hopeless and depressing. Also, I lived in Seattle during this time, and didn’t like the city and left as soon as I could and moved to Mexico. So all in all, grunge didn’t do much for me. (Stone Temple Pilots were a bit different, and appealed to me more, in that the music was less grungy and they weren’t from Seattle, though their singer’s story is the same.)

There was, nevertheless, a do-it-yourself ethos to the scene that I found attractive. Bands were especially afraid of “selling out,” thus many of them first signed with the local Sub Pop label.

It’s a sad epitaph to the scene that the folks who created it fought mightily to avoid the taint of commercialism in their music and conformity in the way they lived — and ran, as they did, to the embrace of a drug that embodied everything they were fleeing.

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

The proper use of `awesome’

    Lately I’ve been looking for some inspiration that only human achievement can provide, given the news of the last few days.
     So I was thrilled when my old friend from Claremont High School, Scott Edwards, sent me youtube clips of his son, Andrew, playing piano.

    The problem with the way we use the word “awesome” is that when you use it to describe the color of your new car or a new iPhone it doesn’t leave you with much to describe something that is truly awe inspiring. Such as when you see your old high school friend’s son playing piano like this.
    I first met Andrew Edwards when he was an infant. Now look at him. He’s entering college at USC next fall Scott tells me. (Bears mentioning that Andrew’s mother, Alison Edwards, is a piano professor and concert pianist of astounding talent.)
    So many kids seem to expect something for nothing, or can’t see the deep benefit that comes with prolonged pursuit of talent or knowledge.
    In our culture, we spend so much time thinking about how to be “happy.” We’re bombarded with easy paths to what marketers want to tell us is “happiness” – which is usually something more akin to amusement or distraction or titillation.
    Seems to me that the kind of dedication displayed in these youtube clips brings a fulfillment and satisfaction that is real happiness. Amazing to see what kind of achievement true hard work, focus, and devotion brings….

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Writing Better Stories For Ourselves

Two weeks ago I had a heart attack at a high-rise hotel in Atlanta on the morning I was supposed to deliver a speech at a large conference on prescription-painkiller and heroin abuse.

Turned out one of my major arteries was completely blocked. I’ve written elsewhere about what happened that day and you can read it here.

I rebounded quickly because I was near help, and also because of an outpouring of prayers and good wishes sent from many you, which I greatly appreciated.

My wife and I were teary-eyed for days reading your posts and comments.

I went to visit my new cardiologist when I got home. I had never thought of what was happening during a heart attack.

“What you were feeling is the pain of the heart dying,” she told me.

This hit me much harder than anything else I’d heard from a doctor. I began to understand more deeply the enormous good fortune I’d had in being where I was when this happened. Another two or three hours without help, “and you’d have been in serious trouble,” she said.

I’ve spoken a lot about personal accountability in my talks about Dreamland. I believe it’s one of the lessons we ought to learn from our opiate-addiction epidemic: that as a culture, we almost demanded doctors cure our pain quickly and completely and we weren’t going to do much to help them do that – like eat better, exercise more, avoid processed foods. Opiate painkillers were quick, cheap and those were the tools doctors turned to.

So midway through writing the book, I stopped drinking sugary drinks; lots of junk food I’d already eliminated from my diet. I don’t buy food that’s advertised on TV. I’ve always walked a lot, but I added swimming. I had no clue that I had a blocked artery, or ought to believe I had one, because I thought I was doing a lot right. (My cardio rehab nurse said she thought the swimming had saved me, because through it my blood had found new ways of circulating around the blocked artery and used those when the attack came.)

Still, I’ve come to believe that our heroin/pill epidemic has a lot to say about who we are as Americans, how we do live and how we should live. I think I felt that a bit more deeply following my heart attack.

As part of that, I came across a discussion of the work of Viktor Frankl, a great philosopher and Holocaust survivor. It reads in part that what gave him the ability to survive Nazi concentration camps (four of them) was the search for meaning. That life is more than the pursuit of happiness; it’s the pursuit of meaning and with that comes fulfillment.

“We all said to each other in camp,” he writes, “that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered.” But it was not the hope of happiness that “gave us courage,” he writes. It was the “will to meaning” that looked to the future, not to the past. In Frankl’s existentialist view, we ourselves create that meaning, for ourselves, and not for others. … We must acknowledge the need to make sense of our lives and fill what Frankl called the “existential vacuum.” And we alone are responsible for writing better stories for ourselves.

That last sentence is the most important one.

Frankl’s work, I think, is hugely relevant amid this opiate-addiction epidemic.

I’m just beginning this new life – renewed approach to exercise, avoiding stress, and thinking of food differently than even I had. Feeling very fortunate to be alive and be around people who care – like many of you.

Hoping to continue writing a better story for myself, and wishing the same for you.

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Filed under Books, Dreamland, Storytelling

Big News From Nayarit: Edgar Veytia arrested

In fascinating news from Mexico’s heroin world, Edgar Veytia was arrested Wednesday at the San Diego-Mexico border.

Veytia is the Attorney General for the state of Nayarit, and a figure bigger in the public mind than the state’s governor – which is rare in Mexico.

He was charged under an indictment out of New York alleging that he conspired to smuggle heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine into the United States.

Those who’ve read Dreamland know the importance of Nayarit in our heroin supply. Many have alleged that Veytia protected the heroin trade, in an alliance with a large and new cartel known as Jalisco New Generation, who has taken control of the region over the last six years.

Proceso, the Mexican new weekly, recently published this article calling him the “dark Prosecutor,” and repeating allegations that he had protected the drug trade.

Veytia began his career simply enough, as an attorney handling the taxi concessions for the city of Tepic. But in time, he was place in charge of the state’s anti-kidnapping squad and from there elevated to Attorney General.

(Stay tuned for a blog post later today about my own (brief) encounter with Edgar Veytia.)

In Nayarit, he has promoted an image of himself as a tireless, almost God-like, fighter against crime, subduing the violence that racked the state during 2010 and 2011. The governor of Nayarit named him government official of the year.

Veytia has several corridos – ballads – written about him, promoting this image. The words to one song read, in part:

“Nayarit was a war zone, body mounted and the state needed a miracle sent from the Lord above.

Edgar Veytia is the name of this miracle, who returned peace to the land, risking his life

He’s been able to let people feel better, in a peaceful state and for that I thank God.”

In February, the Mexican Marines shot it out with – and killed – a wanted leader of the Beltran Leyva Cartel — Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez, aka H2 – who lived a few doors down from Edgar Veytia in the city of Tepic, Nayarit’s capital.

A businessman in Los Angeles who is from Nayarit, in an interview in 2014, told me Veytia had him kidnapped. (More on that interview later.)

So far, it’s unclear how Veytia was at the border and able to be arrested. I suppose we’ll hear  more on that as the case unfolds.

Leaving aside the charges against Veytia, the Mexican drug trade since its origins in the 1970s has depended on political protection, collusion and corruption.

More later today when I have time to write.

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Filed under Border, Drugs, Mexico, The Heroin Heartland

Can We Treat Our Way Out of This?

I was reading the obituary of a young woman named Isabella Sammartano from suburban St. Louis, Missouri, who died from a heroin overdose suddenly after being clean from opiates for 16 months.

Her obituary doesn’t provide a lot of detail, but it does provide some. It sounded as if she spent a lot of time in rehab, then relapsed each time. Finally, when she looked to be putting the worst behind her, she relapsed again and overdosed and died.

It’s an extraordinarily sad story – and it must have been very difficult for her parents to write the obituary.

It made me think of what her death can tell us. First, all addiction seems to involve relapse. I quit smoking (and started again) nine times before I finally quit for good – at 37.

But I lived through my cigarette relapses. With opiates, particularly given the amount of supply of dope on the street, getting out of treatment is like Russian Roulette. People go in, detox, get clean. Their tolerance to narcotics drops. They leave rehab and do well, then they relapse. With these drugs, and their prevalence and potency on the street, relapse too often means death.

It feels good to say, `We can’t arrest our way out of this.’ I agree. We do need expanded treatment. But, frankly, that also feels too easy.

My feeling is, when it comes to opiates, we have to arrest our way out of this before we can treat our way out of it. That’s a bit discombobulated, I know. What I mean is that we need to address supply on the street. That comes only with arrests. It seems to me dangerous to assume that in modern America people can get out of rehab and go home to areas awash in dope and be expected to stay alive, given the likelihood of relapse and the potency and controlling nature of opiates. It’s not cigarettes people are relapsing on. It’s pain pills and, especially now, heroin and fentanyl.

This is a supply story and has been from the beginning. Huge amounts of very potent opiates were unleashed on the country – first in the form of prescription opiate painkillers. When millions of people grew addicted to these pills, a lot of them looked for cheaper alternatives. Heroin traffickers, mostly from Mexico, slowly realized that these folks were a growing market and expanded their offering.

But it all has to do with supply. No treatment has much chance against a cheap and plentiful supply of potent dope.

It’s why doctors and the medical establishment need to continue reassessing how they prescribe opiate painkillers.

It’s also why we need to make Mexico a sustained priority. I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t think building a wall — or rather, more walls — at the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to do much to slow heroin trafficking. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously address Mexico’s continued production and exporting of this drug. Ninety percent of our heroin comes from Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department. It’s unconscionable that one country should export so much of this junk. China fought a war with England in the 1800s, twice, over this issue. We don’t need wars with Mexico, but it does seem to me that we need to make this the priority it deserves to be – and walls are a distraction from the real work that needs doing.

This young woman’s death also shows why we probably need to make much greater use of what’s known as medically assisted treatment – the use of drugs as replacements, as shields. These include methadone, Vivitrol and Suboxone – they either take away the craving for heroin or block overdoses.

It’s unreasonable, I think, to assume that addicts can go back to these same neighborhoods, where opiate supply is plentiful, without some sort of protection, some kind of shield.

The last couple years have shown how dangerous that is.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

House Republicans & Heroin

Governing is the opposite of dope.

It’s real world. It’s working the program. Accepting blame and accountability, breaking with fantasy. It’s hanging out with people who don’t think like you. It’s reminding yourself that life is full of constraints and you can’t just do whatever occurs to you. It’s realizing that you are not perfect and there are others whose opinions matter in this world.

That said, the recent health-care fiasco displayed House Republicans behaving like heroin addicts.

It’s easy to go on Fox News for years, blame someone else for everything when you don’t have to be accountable for finding solutions. It’s easy to rant about the endless failures of those people who do. Ranting is a narcotic; so is outrage; so is complaining and destroying. It gives us a big blast of dopamine to the brain. As does spending a lot of time insisting on all the nifty ways you’d do things better when you are king of the world. Feels so luxurious. Feels a lot like heroin, I suspect.

Being an opposition party means never having to put an idea to a constituent smell test. You get used to it – your tolerance for fantasy rises like an addict’s tolerance for a narcotic. Like addicts, you hang out with folks who think like you, talk like you, and never force you to face anything resembling reality, or the necessity of compromise.

Living without compromise is a nice idea in theory, but it’s possible only when you’re high on, and surrounded by, ideology — or dope.

A heroin addict brooks no compromise. He wants a world his way only. No messy complications, no one telling him no. Ask any parent of an addict.

What I think we saw was people addicted to a warm, euphoric ideological fantasy world in which they’ve lived for the last several years. Addicted to the idea that they could do it alone, didn’t need anybody, didn’t need to compromise. This Freedom Caucus seemed dead-set on depriving anyone but the wealthiest of what most would deem civilized health care: maternity care, ER visits, not to mention addiction-treatment coverage.

It was bizarre to watch them line up to take away benefits needed by so many who had just elected them and their president, and give them to our aristocracy.

Harold Pollack noted in this article in Politico that Democrats working to forge Obamacare held hearings over months and accepted more than 150 Republican amendments to the bill they passed. House Republicans this time took 18 days and “the payout to the top 400 families [in America] alone was estimated to exceed total ACA subsidies in 20 states and the District of Columbia.”

How do you come to the conclusion that thinking like the upper classes of pre-revolution France is okay?

Well, perhaps because House Republicans lived in a bubble for seven years, voting to repeatedly repeal Obamacare knowing it would be vetoed. Then the fantasy ended and they finally had the power to do it. They had nothing to replace it with. (John Boehner is, I’m sure, happy to be away from all that.) What they came up with would have savaged the very people who put them in office.

The word `compromise’ gets a bad rap these days, but it’s actually another way of saying something else. It’s saying, we’re behaving like adults. We’re not going to act like petulant children who want a world run according to their whims alone, which is, in turn, another way of describing how a heroin addict thinks.

Something like this, I suspect, is what Ryan was referring to when he spoke of House Republican “growing pains.” Getting off the dope of viewing compromise as a dirty word.

A big part of addiction recovery is relating to others again, accepting that your views are not the only ones that matter, that you have to modify your behavior, answer to others who may not think like you.

It’s like governing.

It’s messy and ragged; it’s hard and far from perfect. It’s adult, in other words, and it’s the opposite of dope.

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Saints and Sinners: Growing up in Portsmouth

A letter from a reader of Dreamland:

I was living in South Shore when Dr. David Proctor arrived in 1978.  I had just come back from college and was working at the local brickyard.  For a few years I was still apart of the local drug crowd but slowly moved away from it because I found it scary and upsetting.  I did not like buying from biker dudes I did not know and I did not like the small dealers that sold drugs to kids.

In small rural towns there are the “saints” and “sinners” and the doctors in any town normally are in the “saint” category.  One of my local small dealer friends went to Proctor while he was still apart of Dr. Riddle’s office. Proctor told him he would write him a script for any drug he wanted.  When my friend told me this I will never forget the stunned and serious look on his face, even though he got a prescription for Black Beauties.  My friend knew in the back of his sinner brain that something was very wrong.

Once my extended Pentecostal rumspringa was over, I returned to church.  I got married and left the area.  However, my husband was an abusive man and I returned to my mother’s home in South Shore with a small child.  It did not take me long even in my state of mind to see that Dr. Proctor along with another doctor had done major damage to my small town.  Even in my mother’s church there were five people that I knew about that were addicted to prescription drugs.

 Your book focused on the opiates but there was a doctor who ran a “diet” clinic who was free with the amphetamines. I would walk around the corner to see his lot filled with cars from Hamilton, Franklin, Pike and other counties in Ohio plus cars from counties in Kentucky and West Virginia.  The people I saw were lean not obese.  So South Shore was a one-stop on the small time dealer network for both opiates and amphetamines.

 There is one thing I would like to say about kids raised in fundamentalist churches. This is about the saint and sinner perspective.  They will be zealously saint or zealously a sinner and there seems to be no middle ground. This especially applies to rural areas.  If you are trained to live your life a religious zealot then when you turn away from your religious upbringing you live your worldly life just as fervently and passionately in the negative. However, when these same people turn back to their religious roots from the addictive life they are not ashamed to help others to do the same.

I left South Shore in the middle nineties with my middle school aged daughter.  I went back to Morehead State and cleaned up my mess from the 70’s and graduated with honors just in time for my daughter to start college. My daughter went on to get her masters at UK.  After reading your book I am glad we left the area for I can see decades of destruction manifest in South Shore when I go back to visit.

A positive note:  I loved your description of Chillicothe Street especially during the holidays.  I was not part of the middle class but was raise by a single mom with three children and no welfare. We would take a taxi to Portsmouth to shop on Christmas Eve.  I can remember the Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell in front of Kresges’ and my mom singing “Silver Bells.”  We would go to Kresges, Greens Five and Dime, Kobacher’s and to Martings to see their window display and buy hot peanuts from their candy area and play on the escalators.

All of this is etched into my childhood mind as well as all the great times swimming at Dreamland with my brothers and the neighbor kids who took us with them.  I thought all city pools were like Dreamland.

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Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Our Heroin: From Afghanistan or Mexico?

While speaking on the topic of heroin in America, I’m often asked how much of our supply comes from Afghanistan, as we’ve been in a war over there for many years.

My answer, from interviews with traffickers, cops and DEA agents, is that most of our heroin comes from Mexico.

That view was confirmed this morning by William Brownfield, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

In a conference call with reporters, Brownfield estimated that 90 to 94 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States originates in Mexico, with another 2 percent or so coming from Colombia and the remainder from other countries around the globe.

That represents a massive shift in our heroin supply since roughly 1980, when a lot of our heroin came from the Far East, and had for decades.

Interestingly, Brownfield said, a lot of Afghan heroin does make it to Canada, but not to the United States, where Mexican trafficking organizations, too close by, enjoy a more advanced and efficient distribution network, and offer therefore cheaper prices.

 

Brownfield was talking about the just-issued International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), which talks a lot about the heroin/opioid problem in America. Brownfield’s message was a positive one about cooperation between Mexico and the United states on issues of drug enforcement.

A wall of law enforcement cooperation is in place, without constructing an actual wall, he said. Serious problems existed, he said, “but we have a far better architecture to address them today than we did in years past.”

Nevertheless, his answer on heroin’s origin stunned even me. I would not have guessed the estimate would be that high.

I’ve written elsewhere about my belief that it’s unlikely that more border walls between the two countries will do much to staunch the flow of heroin into the United States. What’s really necessary is even deeper cooperation, frank discussion with Mexico that a wall and the emotion it provokes would do much to corrode.

Yet Brownfield’s response highlights two things worth mentioning.

One is that Mexico must truly step up to this challenge. Its unconscionable that such a high percentage of illegal highly addictive dope come from one country to another. China had a similar issue in the 1800s, when the British forced opium into that country, resulting in the massive addiction of Chinese people for decades after.

If border walls are insulting to Mexico, it must understand that they are proposed because of Mexico’s own failings – both with regard to law enforcement and criminal justice, and in channeling the desires of its most hardworking citizens, who then feel the need to migrate illegally to the United States.

Second is that U.S. demand for heroin grows organically out of doctors’ massive prescribing over the last 20 years of pharmaceutical narcotic painkillers – the subject of my book DREAMLAND — something that no border wall will stop, of course. Also, if we get into discussions with Mexico about this topic, soon that discussion will also turn to our very accessible market for guns, many of which then go south through a variety of channels and end up being weapons in that country’s bloody drugs wars. So if we ask a neighbor to behave with maturity, we better be willing to do the same.

We have almost 700 miles of walls along the border that separate the two countries. Drugs aren’t much trafficked through those areas that have no walls, most of which are in forbidding terrain. Our drugs, instead, are trafficked through ports of entry where walls already exist. They are trafficked in cars, trucks, and by pedestrians. With heroin, the problem is exacerbated, as I’ve written elsewhere, by the fact that is the most condensable drug, thus the most easily and profitably trafficked,and one that we now have a huge demand for.

All in all, the issue begs a binational, cooperative solution, seems to me.

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Filed under Border, Drugs, Mexico, The Heroin Heartland

Keith Dannemiller: A Podcast

Keith Dannemiller, a native of Ohio, has been one of the premier photographers out of Latin America for two decades now. His black and white street shots from Mexico City are strange and dazzling.

Keith and I worked together in Mexico for many years, both of us freelancers. We recorded this conversation a while back when Keith’s first book of photography — Callegrafia – was coming out. It’s sold out, but the chat is interesting – about finding what to shoot, and why, and what got him started on street photography, and how a man devoted to his craft does his job.

Keith’s new exposition of his photography is called Luz Translation, opening in the town of San Miguel De Allende, Guanajuato, on February 2. Check it out if you’re down there. It’s at Centro Cultural El Nigromante Bellas Artes, #75 Hernandez Macias and running until April 23.

Find out more about him at his website, www.keithdannemiller.com, including the photo tours he leads of Mexico City.

 

 

 

Photos by Keith Dannemiller

 

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The Last Velvet Painter in Tijuana

For many years, Alfredo Rodriguez Ortiz – Argo – was among the throngs of velvet painters making a living in Tijuana painting Elvis, Marilyn, John Lennon and John Wayne.

Those were velvet’s glory days of the 1970s. Now interest in the art has fallen off considerably. He keeps at it. Painting Bob Marley and Tupak more than any others.

He’s now among the last velvet painters, and the only one, from what I can determine, who still knows how to paint Elvis Presley on velvet.

I hope you like the video.

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January 14, 2017 · 3:34 pm

Juan’s Story – The high cost of cheap prices

We came upon this taxi driver who started telling us of how, in order to build his family a house, he went to Texas to cut rock for housing facades, using a legal visa provided by his employer. Did this for three years, six days a week, 12 hours a day minimum.

Hope you like this video, which I did last week in Mexico.

Let me know what you think, either here on in the Youtube comment box. Please share it if you like it.

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Filed under Border, Business, Global Economy, Mexico, Migrants

A Doctor’s View of Pain Pills

Here’s a letter from doctor with a long exposure to the problem of addiction and pain pills. I get lots of email letters about Dreamland. I’ve put a few up on this blog – always with names and identifying details removed.

____

 I have recognized for many years, at least since the late 1980s, that the chronic use of opioid medications was typically a barrier to recovery. I am a physiatrist, a physician procter-1specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, since 1986.  We manage patients who have catastrophic injuries: spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, amputations and those with multiple and severe trauma. I also treated many patients who had less severe injuries including strains, sprains and other soft tissue trauma. We often manage patients over many years. When the use of opioids became more frequent, in the late 1980s, I was perplexed. I did my best to manage pain, if at all possible, without the use of chronic opioid therapy. I was perplexed even more so in the mid to late 1990s when Oxycontin came on the scene. Physicians no longer were afraid to prescribe opioids for non-cancer pain and did so seemingly without caution. They were duped. Drug companies and their physician spokesmen duped them.

I grew up and later practiced medicine for many years in New Mexico. New Mexico, as you may know, has always had one of the highest drug overdose rates in the nation.  Heroin had been the drug of choice, at least until opioid medications came on the scene. I worked as a house painter’s apprentice in the late 1960s while in college. I worked on one crew that every journeyman painter was an ex-con related to heroin use.  I had plenty of opportunity to use heroin but it scared me. My co-workers told me how great it was. One guy, much older than me, made it sound so appealing. “Come over and we will shoot up and listen to jazz.”  I never tried it though I had lots of opportunity.

I knew quite well how dangerous heroin was and never believed that opioid medications were any less dangerous. When I started practicing in the late 1980s many of the patients I saw were on opioid medications when I assumed their care. Most of the more seriously injured patients I saw were successfully weaned off opioids. Many of the less seriously injured, especially those with work related injuries, were much more difficult to wean. Some patients of both categories ended up on long term opioids but were closely monitored to determine if they were benefitting from opioids and whether they were abusing them. Escalating doses were typically not allowed.

The work related injury group of patients who generally had much less severe injuries, were routinely on opioid medications when I took over their care. My job as a rehabilitation physician was to get them back to their usual activities including return to work. I found that opioid medications were a barrier to their recovery. Some of my referring physicians believed the standard of care was to treat pain with opioids as long as patients complained of pain. Some patients were never going to stop complaining of pain and the reasons were frequently psychosocial in nature. I never believed the hype from drug companies regarding the safety of opioids. I saw from up close as a young man and as a doctor that they were dangerous and in general not appropriate for long term use in non-cancer pain.

I knew little about Dr. Russell Portenoy at the time of the opioid prescription explosion but I knew plenty about what drug companies were saying about the safety of opioid medications and the unlikelihood for addiction. I now understand Dr. Portenoy’s role in this public health catastrophe.  I don’t believe Dr. Portenoy and other drug company marketer’s claims that they are now surprised about the addiction potential and danger of opioids. Intuitively it did not make sense. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are so similar to morphine and heroin both chemically and by their mechanism of action. Why would you believe they are so much safer? Those guys were either just plain dumb and so drunk with drug company money and self promotion that they refused to pay attention to what was happening to patients. I am sure they are not dumb. Dr. Portenoy is a brilliant and charming guy. Just view his video presentations and interviews. He is also a successful academic physician. That is what made him so dangerous.  I am just an average doc who has never had a higher academic position than a clinical assistant professor.  I have never authored a paper that made it to a medical journal. How could I know more than them and have been so right about the proper role of opioid medications?  Why didn’t they? Certainly not because I am smarter.Grand Canyon Trip 2015

I think your book was very even handed, maybe a little too much, with Portenoy and the other opioid selling/promoting physicians. I’m telling you they knew better. Their response of “If I knew then what I know now….” just doesn’t cut it. They are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and ruined lives. They should not get off the hook. I suspect their narcissism will prevent even one sleepless night for the damage they have done. But they and their benefactors, the drug companies, have created a horrible health crisis that was largely preventable in the United States. It is almost strictly a U.S. problem caused by U.S. physician “thought leaders”, drug companies and misguided bureaucrats.

I applaud your book. Bringing the black tar heroin story into your narrative was great. You connected the dots. I wasn’t aware of that part of the story. Thanks again for your book. It may just impact our legislators and government officials even more so, to focus on rehabilitation not punishment for those young kids who got caught up in a drug problem often caused by misguided or crooked doctors.

The punishment of “pill mill” docs and drug company marketers including their corrupt physician lackeys could never be equal to the suffering they have created. Glad you spotlighted the problem and did it in such a well-researched, entertaining and cogent way. Thank you.

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An Ohio Farmer: Trump, Dope, Jobs & PC

A DREAMLAND PODCAST – John Russell is 26 and an organic farmer, raising melons in rural Ohio, not far from Columbus. This year he ran for the Ohio state legislature as a Democrat – and lost badly.headshot-1

I had the chance to talk with Russell today.

We had a wide-ranging  conversation, about his decision to go into farming, about his campaign, about Donald Trump, as well as job loss and opiate addiction in America’s Heartland, PC culture, the challenges Democrats face in rural areas.

He’s one of the few, it seems, to go away to college then return to a rural community. So many towns have lost young people to the cities where the jobs are.

We talked about that as well, and about what happened to guys on his high school football team.

This is the first interview I did like this, via Skype, so I’m still working out the kinks, and there are a few buzzes and etc. So please bear with me.

Meanwhile, contact him at www.johnrussell.info, and follow him on Twitter: @JCruss

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Jury Duty and Ray

Late last week, I was put on a jury to decide whether a man with schizophrenia ought to remain in a mental hospital under a conservatorship, one consequence of which is that he would be forced to take his medication.

I was an alternate, meaning my function was to hear the evidence and be there should one of the jurors be unable to continue. It was a short, though slow-moving trial. I fought drowsiness through parts of it, mostly because the courtroom was so quiet and trials often get bogged down in minutiae.court-photo

Listening to three psychiatrists talk about his mental illness was interesting. What struck me were the terms used to describe the symptoms: disorganized thought, delusions of grandeur, inability to perceive reality or form sentences that make sense. “Poverty of thought” was another that intrigued me. So was “lack of insight.” Seems like these terms could describe us all from time to time.

On Monday, the man I’ll call Ray took the witness stand. He didn’t want this conservatorship. In quiet tones and flat affect, he told us he would take his meds if he were released, that he knew he was schizophrenic. He had a shaved head, a Fu Manchu and tiny tattoos of crosses on his temples near his eyes.

We had seen him shambling in and out of the courtroom each day with attendants from the mental hospital, arms not moving by his side, mouth always slightly open under the mustache. We hadn’t yet heard him speak. Now he was talking to us in terms that seemed to make sense.

Then without any change of tone or expression, he began telling us that he was also a NASA engineer. That, though he was 27, he had received a PhD from El Camino Community College in the 1980s. That he was an astronaut, a pilot who flew for Continental Airlines, which his father owned. That he had millions of dollars in the bank, owned an apartment complex, had a twin brother, that police chloroformed him and shaved his eyebrows.

He went on for about 10 minutes, a forlorn figure, lost in the tangle of his mind.

At one point, the bailiff walked over with some tissue for a woman on the jury who was crying.

The prosecutor, not given to expression, kept on asking questions of Ray with an agonized look on his face, wanting us to see the person and the reason we were there – that seeing real mental illness was necessary to do our job.

“This is a sad case,” he said.

I imagined Ray trying to take care of his basic needs – bathing, food. I couldn’t picture it. I imagined him on the street in some confrontation with police who would naturally see him as a menace, unaware of his illness. This collision would end badly — one that, even as he died, he wouldn’t understand. That was easier to see.

As a society, I believe, we have abdicated our responsibility for the mentally ill. Preferring not to pay taxes to do what we should, washing our hands of them. A few blocks from the courthouse are encampments of homeless people, some probably as ill and deluded as Ray. We have left it to police on the streets to be our frontline mental health professionals. Then we complain that officers have performed incorrectly when that combustible situation predictably goes wrong. That’s our fault.

My fellow dozen jurors, after a reasonable amount of debate in a room by themselves, determined that Ray qualified for the conservatorship, keeping him in the hospital, which is what I would have done.

Then, with the judge’s thanks, we all turned in our jurors badges and dispersed into Los Angeles.

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One Mother

On Facebook, I read the simple account – I’ve broken it out into four lines – from a mother from Kentucky. I’ve posted her story, and then the comments that followed:

I lost my son in August,

and my Daughter day after thanksgiving

the only two children I had

oh it’s so hard.

COMMENTS

I have no words. I’m sorry just doesn’t seem to be enough. May
you find the strength you need to carry you through.

I’m so sorry, I lost 2 sons in three years.if i can help you add me as a friend.hugs

img_4054may God give you the strength to survive the loss of both of your children. Hugs and prayers to you mom

So very sorry for your loss prayers and hugs to sister momma I have lost two sons and no words to heal your pain

We lost my oldest nephew Joe on 7/5/16, it is terrible and sad and I’m so glad for this group. You are not alone sister 💙💙💙💙 sending hugs

Why why do we have to suffer so

God be with you.

There are no words…how can i comfort you…may God give you strength…i a truly hurt for you…my daughter continues to fight the beast…

I am so sorry. Much love to you and those who grieve with you. Praying.

This is incomprehensible and insane to think that “god doesn’t give us more than we can handle” – it’s cruel and unmerciful. I share your pain and fear that I may also lose my only other child, having lost my youngest 10 years ago. Sending hugs and more hugs – and strength for when you need it most.

I lost my son I could never imagine the thought of losing another. Hugs and prayers your wayimg_3991

I am so sorry and feel how you feel I lost my son one month ago yesterday my heart has been torn out I don’t know how we’re supposed to go on like this

I lost my only child in 2013, I couldn’t imagine losing 2, and so close together! God bless

My” heart” hurts for you….Don’t know what to say….I lost my son 6-15-16 and the pain is unbearable with one… let along two.I have a daughter on heroin really bad also . I ‘m afraid I’m gonna lose her.

No words for this heartbreak.

 

 

 

 

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