I’m here in Topeka, Kansas, where I’m speaking to the Kansas Medical Society, and it’s an overcast day.
First time here. So I stopped in at the Brown v. Board of Education historic site in the southwest part of town, where the neighborhoods have a lot of nice wooden houses with porches under tall trees.
The site is the old Monroe Elementary School, once segregated, where the black families who brought the suit had their children enrolled.
Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda Brown were the lead plaintiffs in the case. In 1950, they had gone to a white school to enroll Linda. They were turned away. Their case went to the Supreme Court and changed America by, among other things, beginning our country’s agonizing process of living up to our constitution as written.
The court’s 1954 ruling, of course, overturned the idea, enshrined in U.S. law following the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that separate and equal public schools were constitutional.
Using the Brown case as a test, the NAACP and its attorney Thurgood Marshall argued that separate but equal violated the 14thAmendment. The amendment was passed during Reconstruction guaranteeing, among other things, equal protection under the law. Jim Crow had suffocated the amendment.
The court agreed unanimously with Marshall — and with that began the resuscitation of that part of the Constitution.
I learned a few things.
One was that Brown was only the lead of five school segregation cases that were argued before the Supreme Court that day. Others were from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington DC. The Kansas case was chosen as the lead case because the effects of segregation were less bad – the differences between white and black schools weren’t as pronounced — and thus the case had the potential for setting a new high standard for black schools – that of white schools in Kansas. In some cases, the black schools were actually better than the white schools. So a ranger explained to me.
The idea of choosing Topeka as the lead suit was to make school segregation itself, and not the school quality, the key issue.
Also, I learned that Topeka didn’t wait, but began integrating its schools a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Other regions of the country, of course, rebelled.
I heard the name of Charles Houston for the first time.
Houston was the dean of the Howard University Law School who turned the school into a “West Point for civil rights attorneys,” mentoring Thurgood Marshall, as well as many other less-heralded but equally energetic attorneys.
Sounds like quite a figure in American history.
I bought a biography of Marshall written by Juan Williams because it appears to have a lot of references to him. Houston worked his students like a drill instructor, flunked a good many, and had a saying when students complained about the hard work: “no tea for the feeble; no crepe for the dead.” In time, he took Howard Law from an unaccredited backwater into a powerhouse, churning out talents attorneys whom I suspect, like Marshall, helped change the country.
Through all our complicated history, the courts remain the place, as Houston knew, where people, though it would take so much painful time, eventually could find justice.
Here’s a photo of Linda Brown, who was 7 and in the 3rd grade when her father first took her to that white school to be denied enrollment. That’s quite a dramatic image – this big man holding his daughter hand in his as they walk up the steps into this school where they’ll likely be rebuffed.
It now appears that within the NIH push is what is described to me as “a lot” of money (though how much is as yet unknown) to establish three research centers around the country. Here are the guidelines for applying for that money.
Sounds like it might be a good moment for folks in the tri-state Ohio River Valley, so badly hit by the epidemic and deindustrialization, to marshal some forces and look to the future of what such a center can mean for research, dollars, and attracting PhDs to the area — and what all that might mean, in turn, for regional economic development.
They might also consider, as I wrote two years ago, what such a center could mean for all those recovering addicts now studying to be drug counselors and social workers, who might be hired to help in the studies such a center would fund.
After so many years of negative behavior, many I’ve met are now eager to be part of something positive and something bigger than themselves. Harnessing them could mean a massive infusion of new energy to a region that’s lost a lot of it.
This being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our country of Sept. 11, 2001, I’m publishing a poem written about the day by my father, who is professor emeritus of comparative literature from Claremont McKenna College.
By Ricardo Quinones
Whatever it was,
Needing a companion at 40,000 feet,
The accumulating spotty clouds
Suggesting the beetle bush wildness
That overhung his eyes;
The patches of ground below
That resembled the splotches
Of his nearing-ninety skin,
Or the flight path itself
Southeast of Pittsburgh,
Some twenty minutes from D.C.
Placing us directly over Shanksville,
The last great chapter of American democracy.
All conspired to bring to mind
The presence that they required.
And so I said to the presiding form
The poetic father of us all
“Kitty Hawk, Kitty Hawk,”
And he, pleased by the recollection,
Replied, “Shanksville, a name quite different,
Like many along these rural roads,
But what’s in a name?
What matters are the revelations they contain.”
Out of the depths of the American past,
He established the tableau of vision
That would govern our conversation.
The Wright brothers had it all,
Tinkerer’s genius of invention
Coupled with the thirst for competition.
The French were dogging their tails.
But they were masters of locomotion
And at Kitty Hawk
Were the first to lift a powered device
Weighing more than air
Twenty feet off the ground for twenty seconds
A distance of 120 feet.
To the derision and abuse
Their claims elicited
Galileo’s defense was ready for use,
“Eppure si muove,” nevertheless it flew.
The French with justice in their hearts
Were brought to admit and apologize
For discrediting this first adventure into space
That in more than a half -century’s time
Would send a human to stroll on the moon. Continue reading →
Today I learned that the Orchard Supply Hardware store near me is closing.
Some 4300 people* are losing their jobs. A chain of growing and seemingly profitable hardware stores, serving well their communities, is being liquidated.
OSH, as it’s known, has 99 stores in California, Oregon and Florida. If you don’t live in those states, you may wonder why this matters to you. But it does.
For this is not about globalization, or low-skilled immigrants stealing 4300 jobs. Instead it’s Wall Street; it’s about a few rich guys who need to make their numbers.
When I talk about Dreamland, I often say that our opiate epidemic grew from our destruction of community, in many ways, all across America. The demise of Orchard Supply Hardware, announced last week, is the kind of thing I’m talking about.
OSH was a place where the community came, where people bought things with which they built their homes and yards.
The store had a rare combination in hardware these days: great customer service and smaller stores. That meant you could actually find the things you needed. This earned it $600 million in sales last year. OSH, which is owned by Lowe’s, was expanding.
OSH is a chain but people I know feel like it’s their local hardware store. I didn’t buy hardware anywhere else. With all the crappy chain stores and chain restaurants we Americans have to tolerate stomping all over our country, here was one that people actually wanted to shop in, and felt close to.
It seemed that behind OSH was a creative idea: position it as an alternative in a world where customers are moving away from big box stores they have to drive for miles to get to. Smaller stores, easier to get to, alert and knowledgeable staff.
Sadly, Lowe’s backed off this inventive positioning of OSH in July when it hired Marvin Ellison as CEO.
You may wonder: What about that record makes this guy worth hiring anywhere?
You may wonder: What company looking to rebound in this retail environment would hire anyone from JCPenney?
Another question that may occur to you is, why does Lowe’s feel in such a hurry to boost its stock price? Well one reason, apparently, is that a big chunk of Lowe’s stock has been purchased by Bill Ackman, an activist hedge-fund investor, who is hankering for change and wanted Ellison.
Here’s why: Ackman’s hedge fund once had $20 billion, but as investors have pulled out amid its poor performance, the fund now has only $8 billion. Of that, he’s betting $1 billion on Lowe’s stock to rise, and quickly, to staunch the investor exodus. (For more, watch this CNBC interview.)
Thus, Forbes wrote, “The Lowe’s clock is ticking. And with Ackman as the timekeeper, Marvin Ellison is a man in a hurry.”
First idea: liquidate a growing and seemingly profitable chain of stores and its 4300 employees. Double down on big-box retailing just as consumers are rejecting it.
Mind you, this has nothing to do with improving the long-term viability of Lowe’s as a business.
But I guess if I’d lost as much money as Ackman has, I’d be in a hurry to earn it back, too.
Still, you know, Ackman and Ellison might take a moment. Common folks are paying the price: the employees, the contractors and communities that rely on those stores.
In corporate America — as we’ve swooned over it, exalted it, praised its wealthy leaders for making themselves lots of money — the clear hunchI have is that, really, a lot of the fellows at the top are not that good. It’s mediocrity on parade a lot of the time, insulated from results, from any whiff of merit pay, and from the consequences of their failures, particularly as they are felt in towns across America.
I spoke to a guy at my OSH store who said he had worked for the company for 20 years. Here’s how he was told the news: On the afternoon of Tuesday last, company officials suddenly shut the store, escorted the remaining customers out, assembled the staff, and let them know their jobs were ending; the store was closing Oct. 20.
“Today you’re Orchard Supply Hardware. Tomorrow you belong to liquidators,” he said they were told.
Within a couple days, “Everything Must Go” signs were all over the store.
You may wonder: How is that okay?
Here’s Ellison: Lowe’s is “developing plans to aggressively rationalize store inventory, reducing lower-performing inventory while investing in increased depth of high-velocity items. Exiting Orchard Supply Hardware and rationalizing inventory are the driving force behind the changes to Lowe’s Business Outlook.”
So they’re going to stock stuff that sells well. Brilliant idea.
But why does that mean OSH must close? Why not sell it to someone who actually gives a damn about Americans and their communities, and who has the creativity and energy to run such a company?
(NOTE: A Lowe’s spokeswoman emailed me this morning (8/29) with this response to the columns, saying that OSH was not profitable:
We are working hard to make this transition as smooth as possible for our associates and our customers. We will be retaining our associates through the store closure process and are encouraging them to apply for open roles at Lowe’s stores, where they will receive priority status. Associates will receive job placement assistance, and we will be providing eligibility for severance. 86 percent of Orchard locations are located within 10 miles of a Lowe’s store.
The decision to exit Orchard was based on the need to focus growing our core home improvement business and deploy our capital to more profitable projects. Orchard’s 2017 earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) was a -$65 million on sales of approximately $605 million.*)
Instead, Marvin Ellison, escaping JCPenney, decided within less than two months to close 99 stores and lay off 4300 people.
All because? Well apparently Bill Ackman has lost a lot of money in bad investments.
As I’ve traveled the country, I’ve learned that the cost of losing Main Street has been incalculable – yet we bow to the free market as if we have no choice. That’s what’s happening here.
The good news? Lowe’s stock price has gone up a few bucks – so I guess we can all breathe easier.
This move will harm Lowe’s in the long run. I know sales are going online, but hardware will always be different. Customers need that contact with sales staff who know their stuff. Even contractors say that. (See a video about contractors’ opinions on OSH closing.)
OSH formed in 1931. Many years later it was bought by Sears, whose glory days were well behind it, looking to spruce up its home-improvement position. Owned finally by a hedge fund, Sears apparently did what Sears is now known for as a hedge-fund property – it muddled through. (Read an LA Times story here.)
Finally, it spun the company off, but not before saddling it with enormous debt. Naturally, that debt crushed OSH into bankruptcy within two years. This is how Business Insider described it:
“In 2005, Sears Holdings – by then run by hedge-fund guy Eddie Lampert – announced that it would extract a special dividend of $450 million out of OSH, and that OSH would borrow the money to pay this dividend.
“In January 2012, in typical private-equity manner, the now heavily indebted OSH was spun off to the public; 18 months later, in June 2013, OSH, buckling under this debt that Sears Holdings had put on it, filed for bankruptcy.”
In bankruptcy, OSH was bought in 2013 by Lowe’s, which, under then-CEO Robert Niblock, did some great things. Above all, it remodeled OSH stores. Funny what happens when you invest as if for the long run. The staff now seemed motivated. The store came to life; so apparently did the chain. In Pasadena, it became one of the city’s biggest sales-tax generators.
Until that day in July when OSH’s parent company hired a guy from JCPenney at the behest of a hedge-fund owner losing money in a bull market.
You may wonder at it all.
If so, here’s a petition to make yourselves felt. Please share it, and this article, if you like it.
(Correction: I originally noted the number of OSH employees as 5400. A Lowe’s spokeswoman informs me that the correct number is 4300 and I’ve made that correction throughout.)
In Louisville the other day, I wanted to see how jail was changing in America.
This epidemic of opiate addictions calling on us to reexamine a lot about how we live, our values, culture, ideas and institutions we’ve taken for granted.
One of them is jail. Jail has always been a crippling liability in our fight against drug abuse. Jails are usually places where humans vegetate, sit around, argue, learn better criminal techniques, then get out weary and stressed and, if they’re addicted to drugs, they head straight to the dealer’s house.
This epidemic is forcing new ideas. One of them is jail turned into an asset, a place of nurturing, of communion as addicts learn to help each other.
That’s a bizarre concept. I never thought I’d write “nurturing” and “jail” in the same sentence, but it’s happening.
The state of Kentucky seems furthest along in all this. I wrote an Op-Ed column for the NY Times about a visit I paid to the jail in Kenton County, Kentucky. Yet what’s being tried in Kenton County – and a couple dozen other county jails in Kentucky — began in Louisville – in Metro Jail.
Well, if “we can’t arrest our way out of this,” as is so often said, then we need more drug-addiction treatment. Yet this epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to site, and entering them is beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway.
I know that jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. But opiates are mind-controlling beasts. Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the street addict is willing to occupy it. With opiates rock bottom is often death.
Jail can be a necessary, maybe the only, lever with which to encourage or force an addict to seek treatment before it’s too late. In jail, addicts first interface with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, jail is where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. The problem has been that it’s at this very moment of contrition when they have been plunged into a jail world of extortion, violence, and tedium. It’s a horrible waste of an opportunity, and almost guarantees recidivism.
With this epidemic, though, we’re seeing new approaches – jail as a place of rehabilitation, a place where recovery can begin.
Several years ago, as heroin began to grip the area, the Louisville jail saw inmates dying from overdoses.
Mark Bolton, the jail’s director, said the spate of deaths forced new ideas.
“We modeled a pod on outside treatment (centers),” he said. “It became a matter of taking the resources we had and repurposing them. We sent people [to drug rehabilitation centers on the outside] and found out how they run their peer detox program. We learned from them.”
Louisville Metro began with female inmates. Those who were just off the street and detoxing, and who normally were spread across the jail, were placed together in one pod, christened Enough is Enough. This allowed more focus on their needs, and got them away from other inmates who were angered by their withdrawal symptoms, which included vomiting, diarrhea, screaming, insomnia and more.
Jail officials began allowing people in recovery into the detox pod as well. These recovering addicts mentored the new arrivals – washing and soothing them. Officers preferred it, as they no longer had to clean up vomit and diarrhea.
In addition to bathing and caring for those in withdrawal, inmates take classes in relapse prevention, understanding criminal thinking, accountability, parenting, and more; they run their own 12-step groups.
As the Enough is Enough pod began to function, there were fewer fights, less contraband. “Inmates into their recovery and into their sobriety are self-policing. The wear and tear is less,” Bolton said. “After we worked out the bugs, we began to see some of these people show progress. The inmates into their treatment appreciated the fact that they were caring for a human being that was at a place where they had been once.”
When they leave jail, they’re given a Vivitrol shot, which blocks opiates, and they were connected with housing and follow-up Vivitrol shots.
The jail now has the one women’s pod and three pods for men: 56 detox beds and 64 recovery beds, total.
I visited the pod – with about 30 women, four of whom were detoxing. The walls were covered with art work.
(Click here to hear the end of the pod’s afternoon meeting that day.)
It seemed, finally, a nurturing place in jail – far more about recovery than its connecting pod, where fights and loud noise were common until the early morning.
I spoke at length with a woman named Kara, whose addiction was more than 20 years old. This was her 17th time in jail. She had come from washing the vomit off another woman who had just arrived in the pod.
Here’s our interview:
The Louisville jail experiment isn’t a cure-all – no one thing is for this opiate-addiction epidemic. And the jail has difficulty tracking inmates who leave, so it’s unclear how well they do on the outside. What’s more, inmates by this time face a daunting uphill trudge to sobriety, hampered by family dysfunction on the outside, shredded personal relationships, a private sector wary of hiring them, and on and on.
And of course, there isn’t nearly enough in available treatment options.
“I would love to shut some of these programs down,” Bolton said. “This shouldn’t be the jail’s responsibility. [Addiction] is a public health issue. Our job is detention, protection of the public, to get people to court. When we have to become the quasi mental health facility for people who are poor and don’t have access to services, or for people who are drug addicts and who’ve created these chaotic lifestyles for themselves and can’t get treatment in the community — then we become this de facto fallback place for everybody. That’s not what jails are designed to do, nor should they be.”
Yet until a massive investment in community drug rehab and medically assisted treatment takes place, it’s likely that pods like Enough is Enough will be necessary.
It also occurs to me that with jail rethought and remade — a nurturing place — we have the chance that it will be an asset in the next drug scourge that comes along.
Either way, as with Kenton County, it seems like a better bet of public money than the way jail has been done up to now.
A couple weeks ago I was in the Midwest, speaking about Dreamland.
I decided to add a couple days to the trip to spend more time in places where I was visiting than I’ve done in the past.
First stop was Whitehall, a town of about 18,000, next to the airport in Columbus, Ohio.
I got there a little early because I wanted to see a new idea the town had instituted.
Whitehall Fire Department has established its firehouse as a Safe Station – meaning that addicts can come by, no questions asked, and will be shuttled to treatment. This has been tried by police departments elsewhere, but in Whitehall they decided on the fire department, believing that most folks would be more at ease there than showing up to talk to police.
The idea had been in place about six weeks and 54 people had made use of it. Whitehall being part of the Columbus metro area, the vast majority of Safe Station drop-ins are not from the town.
One fellow who dropped by was Matt, who grew up in a fairly difficult family but in a middle-class town nearby. He played football, baseball, basketball in high school. In his town, sports were it, he said. Young men got their identity from their participation, or stardom, in sports.
Readers of Dreamland may feel where this is going.
I opened the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on six Catholic dioceses and the evidence of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests dating apparently to the 1950s.
I got through the introduction and the first two priests in the diocese of Allentown.
It wasn’t just the preying pedophilia. It was the craven blaming of victims, the various layers of psychological torment they endured by predators for years trying to deflect blame, and by church officials who rushed to any lie to hide scandal.
I had to stop. It was revolting, almost deadening to read.
Luckily, I’m also reading a book about the beginnings of modern jazz in the 1940s in New York City: The Birth of Bebop, by music historian Scott DeVeaux.
I found refuge there.
DeVeaux chronicles all that went into creating modern jazz out of the bustling swing-jazz era. I was in the part of the book that focuses on the jazz scene that formed around the late-night/early morning jam sessions at the many clubs around New York in the 1940s.
I’ve been reading it because I’m a long-time fan of jazz – I wrote my senior history thesis on this very period and topic. But also because I’m interested in how “scenes” are created. Places where people come together with similar interests and through intense competition and collaboration over time they create something new and unexpected and change the culture.
Portsmouth, a small town I wrote about in Dreamland, has been slowly rebounding from years of economic decline and drug addiction.
That’s a remarkable thing. For it was Portsmouth – on the Ohio River — that led the way into our national opiate-addiction epidemic. The town was where the Pill Mill – sleazy pain clinics prescribing massive amounts of pills to almost anyone for cash – was born.
With the town blasted by this huge supply, and the sense of community shredded by job loss and more, widespread pain-pill addiction was a fact of life in Portsmouth by the end of the 1990s.
But a lot has happened since then. The town, each time I return, seems slightly more energetic, more invigorated, more about positivity and less about dope’s inertia and fatalism. A recovery culture has taken hold there that’s exciting to watch.
Not that all the problems are behind Portsmouth, Ohio. But there’s another story now competing with the “let’s get high” culture that gripped the town for so long. I wrote about the beginnings of this at the end of my book – the small clues of rebirth: new gyms, a coffee shop, lofts, refurbished buildings and more.
Along that line, the folks of Portsmouth – 500+ volunteers – get together this Saturday to wash, repaint, redo their downtown in something they’re calling Plant Portsmouth.
They’ll be painting light poles, scraping and painting all the curbs, replacing 120 streetlights, and more. “None of this has been done in 20 years,” said Jeremy Burnside, an attorney in town who got the idea started.
They’ll also be planting plants as a way of signaling the town’s rebirth.
Burnside’s hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most people planting plants simultaneously.
(Folks — please send me photos from the day and I’ll post them here and on social media. #plantportsmouth)
Organizers have raised $75,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies. That itself is a sign of how locally owned businesses are now growing in Portsmouth. None of that money came from the chain stores and corporate fast-food restaurants that have dominated the town’s economy since things began to go bad in the early 1980s and the shops on its main street closed. (Btw, I bought a couple t-shirts, inspired by Dreamland and the community pool that was the source of my book’s title, from a company called 3rdand Court that began in downtown Portsmouth. Check them out.)
The antidote to opiates is not naloxone. It is community. I say this often in my speeches when I’m traveling around the country. We Americans have isolated and fragmented ourselves in a million ways – this in poor areas and in wealthy areas. That left us vulnerable; it left us dangerously separate and disconnected from each other – strange to say in this time of technological hyper-connectivity.
The final expression of all that is our national epidemic of addiction to opiates – the most isolating class of drugs we know.
Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial to fighting it, I believe.
I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.
Our national opiate-addiction epidemic is different from other American drug scourges for many reasons.
It’s the deadliest and the most widespread. It didn’t begin with drug mafias, but through the promotion of narcotic painkillers by pharmaceutical companies to doctors, who were pressured by we Americans, demanding an easy solution
to our pain.
But the epidemic is also remarkable for whom it has forced to its frontlines.
Librarians make up one such group.
I’m in Ohio this week, speaking at four regional conferences of librarians around the state. Today was Gallipolis — pop. 3500, in rural Gallia County, along the quiet, majestic Ohio River.
I stayed after my talk to listen to a panel made up of a university librarian, an elementary school librarian, and a public librarian talking about their experiences with this epidemic.
We heard about needles in the bushes, about how a child who lives in a drug house smells, about calling 911 because a customer had overdosed in a bathroom, about the look of some people who come into the library high. The epidemic has made danger zones of innocuous public places.
One school librarian, I was told, suspects two girls at her school are being abused. They come to school smelling badly. She takes their clothes home and washes them.
I was also struck by the stories many in the audience (80 people or so) had to tell about addiction in their families. Several librarians were raising their addicted relatives’ children.
Librarians are also perfectly poised, though, to be great catalysts for change – community organizers in the fight against this plague. That’s what I believe. They have the spaces, the local trust and credibility, and often small towns need folks like librarians to bring them together — and this is happening.
As I said to the group I spoke to, who better than purveyors of the book to be the leaders in this fight.
Plus, librarians are looking for new roles to play – rebranding libraries as community centers, places where people can come together. This catastrophe is offering libraries and librarians that moment to reinvent themselves towns and counties.
In the afternoon, I drove through the pristine southern Ohio farmland – white houses, white churches, silver siloes, blue sky, and acres of green corn.
I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Washington Court House, another small town with a bunch of opiate addiction problems.
Tomorrow Dayton – then Findlay and, finally, Twinsburg.
Next week I speak in Weber County, Utah, and after that Brunswick County, North Carolina.
All frontlines in America’s epidemic of opiate addiction.
From 2006 to 2015, Dr. Michael Rhodes was one of the top prescribers of OxyContin in the state of Tennessee.
His practice had many of the signs of what had come to be called a “pill mill.” Lines of people outside. A knife fight in front of his office. Investigators found he often prescribed without proper physical examinations or knowing the medical histories of his patients. Over those years, Rhodes, of Springfield TN, prescribed 319,000 OxyContin tablets. In May, 2013 had his license placed on restrictive probation by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.
Still, representatives from drug-maker Purdue Pharma continued to call on him urging him to prescribe more OxyContin, their signature drug, according to a lawsuit filed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.
“In spite of this disciplinary action by the board (of medical examiners) and direct knowledge of his patient’s death from OxyContin, Purdue continued to call on Dr. Rhodes,” the Tennessee complaint states. They continued to “pressure Dr. Rhodes to prescribe more and more opioids, even when he expressed concerns regarding his own ability to competently do so.”
According to the lawsuit, Purdue reps called on Dr. Rhodes 126 times, include 31 times after his license was restricted.
They did so during the years after the company signed an agreement in 2007 with the federal government to be vigilant for abuse and diversion of the pills and look out for doctors prescribing in unscrupulous ways.
Part of the Tennessee complaint against Purdue catalogues alleged attempts by the company to get high-prescribing doctors and nurses to prescribe even more of their product, despite signs that those medical professionals were behaving in unethical ways and that their prescribing habits were out of control. Cultivating high-volume prescribers, the complaint alleges, was seen as crucial to the company’s business. The complaint alleges the company called on several such nurse practitioners, three now-shuttered pain clinics, and 13 doctors, who’ve retired or had their licenses revoked or placed on probation.
Among them was Dr. James Pogue, of Brentwood, TN, who prescribed 562,000 OxyContin 80mg pills between 2006 and 2013, making him one of the largest prescribers in Tennessee even three years after he stopped practicing medicine. He generated $655,000 in revenue for the company during one six-month period in 2009, according to the complaint.
Company sales reps called on him 53 times between 2005 and 2012, “more than half of those occasion coming after his license was reprimanded in 2009.”
The Breakthrough Pain Therapy Center, in Maryville TN, was known to have none of the typical diagnostic tools associated with pain clinics: examination tables, gloves, urine screens “or providers who performed independent pain diagnoses.” It also included “scant” office records and pre-written prescriptions often dispensed “without a physician present.”
While placing some staff on no-call lists, the complaint claims Purdue continued to call on other staff members at Breakthrough Pain Therapy, whose owners were federally indicted in December 2010. This included Buffy Kirkland, a nurse practitioner who worked there for several years. Between 1998 and 2017 as a nurse practioner in Tennessee, she prescribed 68,000 OxyContin tablets, of which two-thirds were of 40mg or stronger, according to the complaint.
The Tennessee complaint is one of numerous lawsuits filed in the last year or so against Purdue and several other drug companies that make opioid painkillers. The plaintiffs include Native-American tribes, small towns like Everett, WA and large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Most state attorneys general have filed lawsuits, as have at least 300 counties in a suit that alleges a “public nuisance” by these companies. That suit is consolidated in a federal court in Cleveland.
When I was writing Dreamland in 2013-14, I remember only three such lawsuits against makers of opioid painkillers. This was a time when the issue was largely hidden, those affected largely silent. Families were ashamed and wanted to obscure the truth of the addiction and manner of death of their loved ones. Thus the media paid scant attention and elected officials, outside those in a few states, paid less.
But the awareness has expanded in the last three years. One result is that many more lawyers across the country have turned to examining legal theories that might prosper in court.
Public agencies have been hammered by the cost of the epidemic. Indeed the epidemic’s costs have largely been borne by the public — by coroners and public health offices, police and sheriffs departments, jails, county hospitals, foster children agencies and more. Meanwhile profits have largely accrued to the private sector, mostly to pharmaceutical companies.
Thus, today, most state and county officials have to be seen by their constituencies as doing something dramatic about this epidemic, and a lawsuit has become an option to recoup some of those costs. None of the new lawsuits has yet gone to court.
“Always Be Closing” is the motto that salesmen live by in the movie/play Glengarry Glen Ross.
If you haven’t seen the movie, do so. It’s great: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alex Baldwin, Kevin Spacey. It’s about an office of desperate sales guys hawking shady real estate investments. ABC — “Always Be Closing” — is the way each is supposed to approach every sales call.
The suit was filed in May by the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. It alleges a lot of things, but in general that Purdue used deceptive marketing practices to push its signature drug, OxyContin. This took place, the suit alleges, between 2009 and 2012, well after the company and three of its executives pleaded guilty (in 2007) to a federal misdemeanor of false branding and paid a $634 million fine, while also committing to a series of measures to ensure they were not marketing to doctors who were prescribing unscrupulously.
The company moved to seal the lawsuit, but a judge in Knoxville recently decided against that idea, allowing the office to send me, and others, a copy.
In general terms, what I find interesting the lawsuit is how it displays the changes in pharmaceutical sales in this country, much of that coming during the life of OxyContin, though not due to it.
Up to the mid-1990s, drug salesmen in the United States were usually older men, often with backgrounds in pharmacy or medicine. They were often from the communities they sold to, knew the doctors they sold to, and became credible sources of information for those same doctors as medicine began to change rapidly.
Then the industry went another route. Those older folks were shown the door. In what can be called a sales force arms race, drug companies hired more and more reps. These reps were usually much younger, very good looking. They didn’t know much about they were selling but they have backgrounds in sales. They inundated doctors with visits and giveaways, of pens, calendars, lunch, sometimes trips for continuing medical education seminars. The companies were aware that by massaging a doctor’s staff, the doctor would soon be an easier mark.
Many companies did this. The numbers of sales rep rose through the 1990s from 35,000 nationwide to over 100,000 by the end of the decade. But other companies were selling blockbuster drugs to deal with cholesterol, hypertension and others. Purdue was among the few that used these techniques, and this enhanced salesforce (numbering eventually 1,000), to sell a narcotic painkiller.
“Always Be Closing” was, apparently, part of that push at Purdue. So, allegedly, was mention of the movie. All of this coming after the 2007 criminal lawsuit.
In Tennessee, (pop. 6.6 million people), the company made 300,000 sales calls to health care providers in the 2007-17 decade, during which time doctors prescribed more than 104,000,000 OxyContin tablets; more than half of those tablets were at the strongest doses the company made: 40mg and above.
Those of you who’ve read my book Dreamland know that, to me, supply is the crucial factor in this, and really in any drug scourge. What the lawsuit describes is a company hard at work at creating a vast new supply of opioids.
Company instructional materials pushed sales folks to “expand the physician’s definition of the appropriate patient” to which opioids might be prescribed; to “never give someone more info than they need to act”; and to develop a “specific plan for systematically moving physicians to move to the next level of prescribing.”
“We sell hope in a bottle,” said one guide for incoming salespeople, who were also instructed to encourage doctors to increase patients’ daily doses.
The lawsuit goes on to claim that Purdue sales reps in Tennessee were urged to make frequent sales calls, as evidence showed that that increased the number of prescriptions. According to the lawsuit, the company urged its salespeople to “focus on doctors who had more patients, less likely to have pain management expertise, and have less time to appropriately monitor patients on opioids.”
During these years, Purdue sales reps, according to the lawsuit, focused their efforts on primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, whom the company “knew or should have known … had limited resources or time to scrutinize the company’s claims.” Together, people in those three profession prescribed 65 percent of all OxyContin tablets in Tennessee during these years. By 2015, Tennessee had the third highest prescription rate of opioids in the country.
A major part of the lawsuit goes on to discuss specific examples of Tennessee doctors who were leading the state in opioid prescribing, often with signs that their practice was out of control or they were incompetent or unscrupulous, yet who were nonetheless aggressively marketed to by Purdue salespeople.
One of the fascinating things about Tijuana is its way of absorbing almost anything and anyone from anywhere.
It has a long history of doing so, most recently with several thousand Haitians immigrants, who’ve crossed nine borders, coming up from Brazil, to arrive looking for U.S. asylum, which they did not get and so they stayed in Tijuana andhave been melting into the city.
As part of all of the above, the Orchestra of Baja California — which itself has its roots in a Russian orchestra that was imported to the city in 1992 with help from Eduardo Garcia Barrios, the group’s conductor for many years — this week put outan album backing accordionist Celso Piña.
Piña, born in Mexico, has made a career of playing Mexican norteño and tropical cumbias from Colombia.
The orchestra, now under the direction of Armando Pesquiera, held three concerts with Piña. Give a listen …
I’ve always wondered how novelists come up their books. Do they just start writing with a hunch and let the inspiration flow, taking them where it will? That seemed unlikely, given what I know about writing as a daily job, with inspiration playing only a minor role. (Or better put, inspiration flowing from consistent daily toil.)
Or, I wondered, do they spend days ahead of time blocking out their stories scene by scene? (Which is how my mind works.)
Each writer is different. Each follows a different path.
It’s a chronology of events he describes in Catch-22 and it helped him keep track of the story he intended to tell in wildly non-chronological order.
(Full disclosure: I started to read the novel years ago and couldn’t finish it.)
I tried something like this with Dreamland – putting pieces of paper up on a mirror in my garage office, each representing a different chapter, which readers of the book will know are mostly 2-6 pages in length.
At one point my wife walked into the garage, saw this blizzard of paper taped to the mirror, and left thinking I’d lost my mind. But the papers helped visualize where the book was going and track the different storylines I was telling. It helped also when it came time to rearrange the order some of the chapters came in. I’d just untape a chapter and move it somewhere else on the mirror. At one point I had six rows, each with 5-7 chapters per row.
Apparently other writers find this visualizing necessary first before telling a story.
“Every great novel—or at least every finished novel—needs a plan.”
To understand Ojeda’s importance, it’s important also to understand that the Mexican Mafia is neither Mexican nor was it, for many years, a mafia, strictly speaking. It is a prison gang, controlling Latino gang members in the state prison system. It took its name as a way of inspiring fear in others. Ojeda was part of that formation early on, as well as the spread of the Mafia’s influence across the state prison system.
The Mexican Mafia had no connection (until recent years) to the underworld in Mexico. Its members were, to begin with and for many years, like Ojeda’s, Mexican-American, who spoke only halting Spanish, if any at all, and whose families had been in the United States for generations.
For many years, in fact, the Mexican Mafia only ran prison yards and its influence was barely felt outside those walls.
But in the early 1990s, all that changed. The man who ushered in that change was Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a long-time member of the Mexican Mafia who had grown up in Orange County.
Ojeda, who was then on the streets, organized a meeting of O.C. street gangs at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, filmed by law enforcement, during which he stood on bleachers dressed in a black-and-white long-sleeve shirt and told them all to stop with the gang killings and the drive-by shootings. He urged them to tax drug dealers in their neighborhoods as a way of funding neighborhood defense.
This stunned many in the Mexican Mafia, and they began to follow his lead, often using emissaries to organize meetings from San Bernardino and Pomona out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest meetings was held.
The Peace Treaty, as all this came to be known, sounded great. Gang leaders doing what law enforcement could not. But it evolved into something sinister and lasting: A system whereby gang members would indeed tax drug dealers in their area and funnel the proceeds to Mafia members, many of whom were in prison for life.
This taxation system far outlasted the Peace Treaty and is still in place today across Southern California, described in dozens of federal RICO indictments and in interviews I’ve done with dozens of gang members.
It amounts to the only regional organized crime syndicate that Southern California has ever known.
Taxation transformed Latino street gangs from scruffy neighborhood territorial entities into money-making ventures, though these were often fairly rag-tag. It gave career criminals, doing life terms in prison, access to a labor force — youths on the street who would do their bidding and admired them the way little leaguers look up to major league ball players. The Big Homies, as they were known on the street, could change life in a barrio with only a few words smuggled from prison in microprint on small pieces of paper.
It’s worth noting that their organizations on the streets, too, were often inept, bumbling, hampered by limited communications, by greed, envy, betrayal, rumor and gossip and drug use, as well as the constant return to prison of anointed emissaries of incarcerated Mafia members. One trial I sat in on involved a mafia member trying to organize three gang members to kill a rival, a man who rarely drove but was often walking in his Pomona neighborhood. Dozens and dozens of cellphone calls on how to do this and it still didn’t happen.
But Mafia taxation changed a lot about Southern California street life.
For a decade, Latino street gangs became the leading race-hate criminals in Southern California, a culture that grew from orders by many members of the Mexican Mafia that gangs should now rid their areas of black street gang/drug sales competition. As they were interpreted on the street, far from direct Mafia control, those orders often became directed at any black person, and thus in some neighborhoods campaigns were waged to get all black families to leave, which included murder, firebombings, assaults, racist graffiti and more.
Taxation made Mexican Mafia members equal in many communities to the town mayor or city council, at least with when it came to their ability to affect life in those areas. Now with the obedience of thousands of gang members on the street, many of whom were too young to have ever laid eyes on the incarcerated men they were obeying, Mafia members could, and did, ignite crime waves from maximum-security cells merely through letters smuggled from prison or via liaisons who transmitted their orders to the street. They drained city budgets, mangled lives, and forced young gang members to commit crimes that landed them in prison for life. I’ve interviewed several young men in such situations.
Ojeda was a contemporary of the pioneers of the Mexican Mafia (he’s far lower left in this photo). Among them was Joe Morgan (standing above him in the photo), whose story is also fascinating. Morgan was a Serbian-American who grew up in Boyle Heights/East LA and became culturally Mexican-American, and helped found the Mexican Mafia. Morgan died many years ago.
Ojeda was the last surviving member of that generation of the Mexican Mafia, made a member in 1972 in Tehachapi. Here’s a photo of him from those years (top right).
Throughout his life, but especially following the Salvador Park meeting, he would remain a household name in the Southern California Latino street-gang world. Meanwhile, he was in and out of prison.
In 2016, he was convicted a final time of conspiracy, largely on the basis of testimony from a former protégé, and sent to prison for 15 years, which most people figured was a life sentence.
But his control over Santa Ana and much of Orange County Latino street gang life seemed to me mostly unquestioned. So, too, his reputation as the Godfather of Orange County.
Los Angeles has seen gang violence plummet in the last decade.
Some of the reasons why were on display in two federal criminal conspiracy cases announced this afternoon at a press conference at the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney.
The cases involved the Mexican Mafia prison gang controlling drug taxation and trafficking in two places: The LA County Jail, largest jail in America, and in the city of Pomona.
The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that runs the Latino gang members in the state’s prison system. About 25 years ago, it extended that power to the streets, ordering those gang members to tax neighborhood drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to MM members. Drug taxation thrives and amounts to the first regional organized crime system in the history of Southern California.
One case involved a Mafia member who controlled drug trafficking in the entire jail, according to the indictment: Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who grew up in East LA, a member of the South Los gang. He’s apparently been in county jail for many years, during the reign of the now deceased Lalo Martinez, a controversial MM member. Through those years, and after Martinez died, Landa-Rodriguez allegedly grew to control the drugs entering and for sale across the jail system.
Inmates not with the Mexican Mafia had to get his permission to sell. Only way to do that was by funneling a third of their product to the gang — hence the name of the case, Operation Dirty Thirds — then waiting while Mexican Mafia associates sold the stuff. That’s one way of controlling your competition. Violators were often beaten. That’s another.
They were helped, prosecutors allege, by Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a local attorney whom investigators say helped facilitate the trade, passed notes back and forth between Mexican Mafia associates, and that kind of thing. They were also helped by a slew of go-betweens who would get arrested with drugs in their bodies.
The other indictment involved a Mexican Mafia member named Mike Lerma, who has controlled Pomona for many years from his cell in solitary confinement at Pelican BayState Prison maximum lockdown. Crews of members from 12thStreet, Cherryville and Pomona Sur street gangs were working together under Lerma’s command, the indictment alleges. The indictment alleges Lerma’s crews did kidnappings, robberies, identity theft. These are Pomona gangs that have harbored animosity against each other for years, but have repressed the urge to go after one another due to orders from Lerma, according to officers I spoke with.
(Btw, I briefly met Mike Lerma one time, in his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. We were separated by Plexiglass and he was cooking a cup of cocoa on his hotplate in his pale-yellow concrete cell where he spent 23 hours of every day. He was small, a wan and bent fellow, wearied by years on solitary confinement. From behind the glass, he waved, said how you doing? I said fine.)
The mafia’s system has forced gangs to abandon what made them local neighborhood scourges because it leads to unwanted police attention.
“Years ago, they were about turf,” said one. “Now they’re about protecting their business.”
For decades, they waged wars over turf. They defended street corners, parks, markets, apartment buildings like they actually belonged to them. They were very much street gangs, and their activity — graffiti, shootings, car jackings, simple hanging out through which they did their recruiting — blighted working-class neighborhoods across Southern California.
These days, though, they are absent. They have retreated into the shadows. Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Just that they’ve disappeared from the streets, no longer are out in public, damaging neighborhoods that can least afford it, spraying up mom-and-pop markets. Homicides are way down because gangs don’t have easy rival targets to shoot at. That’s one reason anyway. In Pomona, the once-notorious Sharkey Park – from which Pomona 12thStreet earned its name the Sharks (members often had shark tattoos) — hasn’t had a shooting in who knows how many years. Some Pomona cops at the press conference couldn’t remember the last one. As if to exorcise the past, the park has been renamed Tony Cerda Park, in honor of a Native-American activist and tribal leader; pow-wows are held at the park.
Gangs are just not evidence in Southern California. It’s a remarkable, profound change in culture and crime, and one that benefits cities, neighborhoods, and working-class residents most of all. Parks are once again places for kids to play. This is part due to dictates in the underworld, from organizations like the Mexican Mafia, who want their business protected.
But it’s also due to an unprecedented amount of collaboration among law enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, this didn’t exist. Agencies fought each other for credit, turf, budget, as the gangs grew fierce and brazen. But the last decade or more has seen a remarkable change and that too you could see at the press conference.
At the press conference, cops of all stripes assembled to thank each other for working together. The feds thanked the locals. The locals thanked each other and the feds.
“I want to give special thanks to our law enforcement partners,” said Pomona Police Chief Mike Olivieri.
(For the record, apart from Pomona PD, that includes the FBI’s San Gabriel Safe Streets Task Force, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the DEA, Ontario Police Department, the IRS Criminal Division, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Division.)
“Today’s action is not an isolated event. Southern California law enforcement is united in its fight against violent criminals and street gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, continuing the theme.
I’ve been to a dozen of these gang-conspiracy press conferences and I always like it when they thank each other. Because it wasn’t always that way.
Speaking with a prosecutor outside the press conference, we marveled at the change and wondered how the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s might have been avoided had this kind of collaboration been more common