Jo Martin is a retiree from the corporate world who now removes tattoos from the skin of people for whom the inked hieroglyphics mark lives of addiction and crime they are trying to escape.
I met Martin when I was recently in Northern Kentucky.
A few years ago, with her children grown, Martin was tutoring jail inmates, most of whom were repeat offenders and long-time drug addicts. A friend told her about a priest in Los Angeles working with gang members.
Father Greg Boyle had begun Homeboy Industries, which offered paths out of gang membership, the friend said. Boyle was speaking at a university in Ohio, so Martin went to see him.
She was especially taken by Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, she told him. Every jail inmate she tutored had them, and the stains were impediments not just to them getting work and renting apartments, but in fully leaving behind a damaging way of life.
Some part of why people remained in addiction seemed to have to do with their tattoos, she said. The markings served to keep them mired in crime and drugs, pulling them back even when their intentions were good. Removing the ink, on the other hand, seemed to imply a commitment from which there was no turning back.
She emailed Boyle later to find out more. “Come to California,” he wrote back. She went, toured Homeboy Industries and saw the organization’s tattoo removal operation.
She returned to Northern Kentucky and formed a tattoo-removal nonprofit, Tattoo Removal Ink. Using the life insurance her late husband had left her, she spent $55,000 on a laser machine – an Astanza Duality – that removes tattoos of black and red ink.
Astanza sent people to train Martin in using the machine. “Never in my life had I touched a laser,” Martin told me. “None of us knew how, but it’s very doable. To practice, we did a whole bunch of people who weren’t incarcerated, charging them nothing.”
In 2016, from a small office, Martin and two nurses began removing tattoos of those leaving the jail where she used to tutor – with particular emphasis on those on the face, neck and hands, as well as the markings of gang membership, and the tattoos pimps apply to brand their prostitutes.
Soon she began to see the bizarre – the man with a Hannibal Lecter mask tattooed across his lower face. Another with a dotted line tattooed down the middle of his face, with one side of his face clean, then other mightily tattooed.
“We take a lot of swastikas off,” she said. “And teardrops.”
In Los Angeles, Craigslist has emerged in the last few months as a major new marketplace for illicit fentanyl.
The online classified ad service has for several years been a virtual street corner, a place where drugs are sold under lightly veiled pseudonyms: black-tar heroin (“roofing tar”), crystal methamphetamine (“clear sealant”), or generic and most likely counterfeit oxycodone 30 mg pills (“M30”).
But fentanyl, the deadliest of them all, is a new arrival, apparently within the last year, and for the moment appears to be for sale on Craigslist only on its Los Angeles site.
A search of Los Angeles Craigslist revealed numerous listings for fentanyl code words “China White Doll” or “White China Plates” or “China White Dishes.” A few were even more brazen: China “fenty fent” White read one. The ads usually display no photographs or images other than maps of the areas the vendors purport to serve.
The search did turn up numerous ads of what appeared to be vendors of actual dinnerware; these included photographs of plates, bowls, teacups.
But other ads were like this one, from a West Hollywood vendor, who advertised under the headline, “White China Christmas Edition – $100”:
“Were you left out in the cold? Were you served fake stuff? Are you sick? Let me help you ease your pain. …Tired of the petty games or fake product being sold at a cheaper price, or waiting hours upon hours for the dude.”
Offering “Winter White Fine China,” a Sherman Oaks vendor advertised professionalism, reliability, fast service and “product testing available. No pressure to purchase.”
“Yes honest vendors still exist!” the vendor wrote. “Be cautious, stay alert & don’t get fooled! If you’re not absolutely satisfied we go our separate ways!”
“Mention #painpaingoaway for the sale prices,” read one Wilshire vendor’s ad.
Another in Gardena offered a “brand name substitute of roofing tar”: “$20/strip if you’re buying one, price breaks if you need more. White china plates also available as well, $100/half set $180/full set. TEXT ONLY PLEASE. When you contact me, please include your name, what you’re looking to purchase and if you’re mobile or if you need delivery (If delivery, include your location as well)”
Many listed the keywords that buyers might be using to find vendors: “Addys, blues, China, perks, xanax, white, coke, fent, Subs, Percocet, oxycodone, Norco, Suboxone, adderall, fentanyl, Dilaudid, tramadol.”
I sent an email to Craigslist media department requesting an interview on how and why this occurred and is allowed, but I’ve received no response.
“We’ve observed a high frequency of involvement of Craigslist in the dissemination of [illegal] drugs,” said Ben Barron, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles who is prosecuting the region’s first Craigslist-related fentanyl death case. The case involves Andrew Madi, an alleged Craigslist heroin and fentanyl dealer who is accused of selling fentanyl that killed a buyer last summer.
Madi, 25, was indicted earlier this month on charges that he sold fentanyl to a buyer, recently out of drug treatment, who responded to his Craigslist Los Angeles ad. Barron said Madi allegedly advertised “roofing tar” (black-tar heroin). Then, via texts, Madi allegedly told the buyer he was out of roofing tar, but had “China White,” offering a money-back guarantee if the buyer was unsatisfied with his product.
When Madi texted him later asking his opinion of what he’d been sold, the buyer replied that “this white does the job for sure.” On July 6, the buyer was found dead in his apartment, with a baggie containing fentanyl nearby. Officials allege that Madi had been advertising fentanyl, heroin and Xanax on Craigslist since March.
“We have very good reason to believe that this was just one small slice of the trafficking [Madi] was doing using many email addresses and burner cellphones” on Craigslist, Barron said.
A cursory check of Craigslists in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas turned up only a small number of similar listings, or none at all. New York’s listing offered a handful of such ads. San Diego and Orange County Craigslists had several, though far fewer, suspect listings than did Los Angeles.
Barron suggested the reason may be related to Los Angeles’s position as a major drug hub, both from Mexico and from China, where much of the fentanyl powder is made by hundreds of chemical companies.
“Even if we don’t have the same degree of opiate overdose problem as you’d see in the Rust Belt, the drugs are flowing through here,” he said.
One long-time heroin addict, who requested anonymity, suggested the Craigslist fentanyl marketplace was due to the bust of an extensive, well-used San Fernando Valley-based heroin delivery services — known by addicts and police as Manny’s Delivery Service — in December, 2017. Addicts and mid-level dealers from as far away as Anaheim and Bakersfield were said to patronize the service.
The service reputedly did not sell fentanyl, but the addict said many people have switched to fentanyl after Manny’s cheap, potent heroin, and the organization’s convenient delivery, were no longer available — though other services have stepped into the vacuum Manny’s left behind.
The Craigslist ads for fentanyl, he noted, began popping up not long after Manny’s was taken down by local and federal authorities. The cases against 16 defendants in the Manny’s indictment are still winding their way through court.
Fentanyl might have arrived anyway, said the user, given its advantages as an underworld drug. “But I can tell you without a doubt what has happened to the L.A. dope scene since they were busted: Fentanyl is everywhere. There’s a lot of people who are choosing to use fentanyl,” he said in a telephone interview.
If you have any stories of buying fentanyl, heroin, or other illegal drugs on Craigslist, or from Manny’s Delivery Service, please feel free to comment below, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fentanyl is a legitimate medical painkiller – a synthetic opioid – used often in cardiac surgery and to control chronic pain. But it is up to a hundred times more potent than morphine and highly addictive, and thus has become a street drug as America’s epidemic of opiate addiction has spread in recent years. The epidemic began with doctors overprescribing narcotic pain pills. Many patients grew addicted to those pills and some of them switched to heroin, which is mostly from Mexico or Colombia. Recently, though, traffickers have turned to fentanyl as a heroin substitute because it is cheaper to manufacture and, due to its potency, easier to smuggle in small quantities.
Public health and law enforcement officials attribute the record overdose-death rates of the last few years to widespread addiction to opiates across the United States and the arrival of illicit fentanyl – often in powder form – on the streets in response.
Fentanyl has become widely offered for sale on the Dark Web — that part of the Internet that requires a special connection and expertise to connect to. But Los Angeles appears to be the first place where the drug is offered on the open web.
The emergence of the Craigslist fentanyl marketplace is alarming, Barron said, because at least “on the Dark Web, there’s a degree of sophistication involved in that, whereas anybody can use Craigslist.”
UPDATE: As of March 25, 2019, Craigslist in Los Angeles, as well as in other cities I checked, appeared to have stopped the drug-dealing ads under the terms “china white,” “roofing tar,” and “clear sealant ” – though a small number could still be found for “M30.”
This summer, a sculptor built a steel, 11-foot, 800-pound bent heroin spoon. With the help of an gallery owner, he put it on a trailer and drove it to the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin.
The bent-spoon protest of the country’s opiate epidemic by Massachusetts sculptor Domenic Esposito and Fernando Alvarez, owner of a Connecticut art gallery, stayed in front of the company’s Stamford, CT offices for only two hours before police impounded the sculpture, but it gained worldwide attention.
Alvarez was arrested and eventually convicted of a misdemeanor charge of blocking free passage.
I was in Boston recently and had a chance to meet and talk with Esposito about the episode and what brought it on.
Our conversation ended up including his brother’s addiction, drug marketing, Americans’ pain, and #thespoon movement they hope to ignite.
Great story. Take a listen. Share it if you like it:
As I try to keep a gauge on the opiate-addiction epidemic in America, one place I go is to The Addicts Mom Facebook page, with 22,000 members, one of whom is me.
The posts are from mothers as they attempt to deal with the lacerating addictions of their children. Here are a few posts, with names removed, that I saw at random this morning. Those who listed a location are from Georgia, Wisconsin, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Alabama.
At times, it gets to almost an aching kind of poetry.
Note: AS means addicted son; RAS recovering addicted son
Well my almost 21 year old AS will be spending another birthday in jail I am sure! Please pray for his healing and mine!
I always knew it was going to be my child one day. On the Fourth of July I found my addicted daughter unresponsive and blue. I breathed for her until paramedics came. They saved her life this time. She spent three days in Icu and was released with no help at all. I live in Florida and I was wondering if this is enough for a marchman act? Doc is Xanax and snorting oxicodone. Any advise is appreciated. God bless all of us Mothers. I just can’t take much more.
I love having a place where people actually listen when I talk bout my addict children. Most people in my town don’t want to hear that there are children addicted in their town people need to wake up sad for the addicts who are outcast. Having trouble getting police to put narcan in there cars also
UPDATE: His PO is coming to see him tomorrow– I will let y’all know how it goes.
My Birthday overall was a good day. Thanks for the wishes and prayers. Blessings to you all.
Dilemma- my 18 almost 19 AS was released from jail last Friday to serve out his probation-14 months (it’s a joke; very seldom face to face visits with his PO). On Sunday he apparently used LSD; when I confronted him he said ‘no worries Mom; it won’t show up on a UI.’ He had no where else to go but our house and the court said our house is not an option for him to stay (we have a younger child at home). He was told the rules- no drugs or drug use. A small issue he flat out refuses to pick up his clothes (drives me crazy) states he’s just defiant; like I’m supposed to be ok with that answer.
Suggestions??? Oh yeah; today is my Birthday- I feel like hiding in a hole not celebrating life
Last night my phone rang at 11:30 my heart automatically started racing. Then I seen the caller I.D it was my RAS instantly worry washed over me, I picked up the phone and the first words out of my mouth was ” what’s wrong? Are you okay?” His reply was ‘Yes ma’am I was just on my way to work and I seen a shooting star and it was the brightest most beautiful one I’ve every seen, and just wanted to call and share with you”.
Four years clean, still suffer from shell shock but feeling blessed.
So another week and another dirty urine at probation. Told me he wants suboxone, I suggested vivitrol. Someone on the MAT (medically assisted treatment) site posted a link for a slide show on all the meds used. I sent it to him privately. He wants to do vivitrol now and I sent him the local dr name and address. He swears he wants to be sober. I asked him, you know how awful detox is, why isn’t that enough to not pick up? He CANNOT deal with stress. No coping techniques. We all have stress but you have to learn to cope. I get the whole disease thing I truly do, but I also struggle with the you know it’s not good for you, you know what you are running away from is gonna still be there and you are making more problems to deal with when you sober up. I know my mind doesn’t function as an addicts but they are all smart kids or adults. Dang fight for your sobriety hard the way you chase that freaking drug. He looks terrible. Lost weight again. And all he keeps saying is everyone is judging me and that makes me want to use. No that gives you a lame excuse to use. We aren’t judging we love you and are worried. I know my dealer he wouldn’t do that yadda yadda yadda. Won’t be long and he is gonna end up in jail, then maybe I can sleep:( I am ANGRY this time.
My soul is tired, my heart hurts, I just can’t do no more today😥
In the farming town of Carthage, Illinois, a lot of kids are afraid of summer.
Ada Bair told me this. Ada runs a rural hospital in Carthage, population 2700, in Hancock County in western Illinois. I met her in Springfield, where I spoke this week to a conference of rural hospital administrators.
Half the kids in town are eligible for free or reduced lunches. So many Carthage kids rely on school for food, she said, that the idea of summer terrifies them. This is the byproduct of rural poverty, unemployment and now widespread drug addiction.
Yes, kids in America’s farm belt don’t have enough food for the weekend. There’s something very messed up about that.
A few years ago, Ada started Food For Thoughts, which sends home weekend lunches with these kids. Her hospital also now funds free lunches for kids 18 and under through June and July. I’m not sure about August and was afraid to ask.
Six weeks ago, Ada’s husband, Charlie, opened a frozen-yogurt shop in what had been a long-abandoned drive-in bank that he’d bought and remodeled. He calls it Lilly’s, for Ada’s late mother, who helped bag the lunches for the kids before she passed at age 102 last year. The shop is at Wabash and Madison in downtown Carthage.
“He wanted to do something on a micro scale that could be replicated in other communities to help revive dying downtowns,” Ada said.
Lilly’s operates in an economic desert of shuttered storefronts. It offers chocolate, vanilla, and a flavor that changes periodically; salted carmel pretzel was a big hit. The profits go to Ada’s Food For Thoughts.
Carthage has been thinning out for years now, Ada says. Methode – a company that makes batteries – has finished moving most of what was several hundred jobs down to Mexico, in a process that took 15 years. Farms are consolidating, too. They’re still family farms, but where there was four or five farms and families working them, there is now one. Where there were four or five farm houses on one road, there’s now one. A farm that size is the only way to afford the kind of massive farm equipment they’re selling these days.
So there’s just fewer people in Carthage, fewer people to support grocery stores, churches, to form the critical mass to move projects of all kinds. Less community. Made it feel almost like a desert – at least where people are concerned. With that comes isolation and a deep poverty.
Seems to me this also has a lot to do with the opiate-addiction epidemic in America. Isolation – in suburbia or in tiny farming towns. Either way, we’re cut off from each other. Opiates feed on that. As drugs, they create the idea that being alone is preferable. But in a small town or county, they also create the feeling that we’re powerless against them. It’s true; when we work in isolation, all problems are insoluble. Sometimes I get depressed.
But then I meet folks like Ada Bair — a little like Narcan for the soul.
This epidemic is neither a red nor a blue issue. Thus I hope candidates from both parties will respond as well. I’ll be happy to chat with them, if they want to call.
I’d hope, moreover, they would focus not only on heroin, but on the broader problem of overprescribing of opiate painkillers, which so often provide the gateway to heroin. (Pain pills have their legitimate role in medicine, but too often are massively and unnecessarily prescribed.)
But there’s another important point in this. I believe parents of addicted children need to use this approaching presidential campaign as a way of magnifying their voices.
As a longtime journalist, I know that the most poignant stories are the ones that can have the most impact. Sadly, many parents up to now have kept silent, ashamed or simply worn out by their children’s addiction.
I’ve been getting amazing, intense email letters in the two weeks since Dreamland was released. I hope to be adding some of them to my blog. Here’s one.
I almost lost my beloved 23-year-old son (he is now 26) to heroin addiction, which had progressed from OxyContin to black tar heroin. We are a family of hard working professionals in a university town.
Like most families, we cherish our kids and do everything we can to help then live an honest successful life. When this happened, my son was a pre-med college student. I was and am very close to him, and he had always been a very good student and loving son and brother. He was kind, funny, highly gifted, devoted to music and passionate about becoming a doctor. He was also prone to depression at times.
When I found out, he was in his 4th year of college, and getting As and Bs in hard science courses such as organic chemistry, but could not seem to manage on his college budget. He kept running out of money. He started having vague physical symptoms, like constipation, malaise and abdominal discomfort. His grades in his last year of college started to slip. At Christmas, we visited my sister’s family in Midwestern farm country. Later, my sister, bless her heart, confided in me that her Oxy pills that had been prescribed for shingles had disappeared from her medicine cabinet when we were staying with her. She was reluctant to tell me as she did not want to make anyone uncomfortable or blame anyone. I am so very grateful that she told me this.
I immediately put together that my son had stolen the pills and had a life-threatening problem. I knew it in my gut to be true beyond any doubt. Perhaps because I am a child of the 60s and knew too many friends who were lost to drug addiction: classmates who were drafted and came back from Vietnam addicted to heroin, and 2 college roommates who went to federal prison for smuggling cocaine as an airline stewardesses. We also have a family history of alcohol abuse and addiction, which my mom told me way too many times.
I freaked out! I knew that he had to be addicted to do something so desperate as steal my sister’s pills. This explained everything – his money problems, dropping grades, and vague feelings of being sick. I could not sleep for fear he would soon be dead. I confronted him in tears and said I knew he had stolen the Oxy. He of course denied it, but finally admitted he had stolen the pills. He admitted he was addicted to Oxy pills, which he had started using after being given a script for narcotic pills after a foot laceration.
I immediately called an addiction doctor I know and, in tears and panicking, offered to pay her anything if she could please help save my son. She drove in from out of town and (at a high hourly rate) met with him and helped him realize he was an addict. She personally went with him to an NA meeting (she is a former cocaine addict and involved in NA). I would have paid anything for any chance to save him.
He went to the NA meeting and started to see addiction therapists, which we paid for, but he remained in denial. He kept saying it wasn’t a big deal and he could kick the habit. He went to some NA sessions, but over the course of 18 months he relapsed 3 times, each time worse than the last. During one of the relapses, he called his father to say goodbye after injecting what he thought was a fatal suicidal dose of black tar heroin in his arm. He had started getting the heroin from a “friend” – a former college football player who had been selling him Oxy and was now selling him heroin once he could no longer afford the street price of Oxy.
His father found him in his apartment unresponsive, but he survived. He was so ashamed that he could not defeat the problem that he said he couldn’t live with the shame and did not find life worth living. We did family interventions and told him we would not give up on him and brought him to more therapists.
He almost died three more times. After the first relapse, I demanded to know his dealer’s name as I wanted to kill him. I traced his phone calls (I was paying for his cell phone) and had repetitive thoughts about killing the demon who sold him the drugs and taught him to inject heroin. I wasn’t sure how I could go on living if I lost him.
When using, he would not see me as he knew that I would know if he was using. So he moved to LA and declined rapidly. His father went to see him and told me that I should go visit him, as he would not be alive long. I did. He looked like a skeleton. He was taking Suboxone, as well as additional narcotics and probably other drugs. I kept saying that I would pay for any addiction therapy he could find, but would never give up on him and not give a penny to his habit. My life was hell.
Thank God, he found an addiction therapist in LA (a former Vietnam vet heroin addict) who he really connected with. He started seeing this therapist while still using. I got a “call” (God how we fear those calls!), but it was not that he had died. It was that he had voluntarily decided to go into “long term” drug rehab. We found an inpatient facility in Utah that the addiction specialist recommended. I knew the enslaving power of heroin addiction and how statistically unlikely it was that he would voluntarily say goodbye to heroin.
I don’t know how he had the strength, but he got on the plane, flew to the University of Utah hospital where he admitted himself into the psych unit for several days of detox. He then voluntarily admitted himself into a Utah inpatient facility for 30 days, then into 90 days sober living, and then underwent 18 more months of therapy and voluntary monitored UAs.
My son is now 35 months completely clean, and is in medical school. He keeps track of every single day he is sober. He says that every day remains hard work. BUT, he has done the work and gotten his life back. He started exercising, working and studying steadily. He took premed courses and passed grueling medical school exams.
My son is now successfully finishing his first year of medical school. He wants to be an addiction doctor and find a way to help others survive this hell.
I still worry about him every day. But we cannot talk about this, as most people do not feel comfortable with the topic. I also need to not jeopardize my son’s career. He tells some people and is doing an internship this summer at rehabilitation clinic. He was open with them when he applied for the position. He answers all questions honestly, but does not bring the topic up with others unless they are very close friends.
I have read every book about addiction that I can get my hands on, and some are excellent, such as “Beautiful Boy.” But no other book so skillfully and adeptly addresses this huge crisis like yours, nor does any other book touch me in terms of what I have lived with like your book.