I wanted to share this along with a recommendation that you read this heartbreaking story from The Washington Post. Right now, our nation has begun reckoning with the fact that people who are addicted to drugs are sick and need help. Incarceration isn’t curing them. Sympathetic articles profile working class white people who are trapped in a spiral of despair.
But deaths have skyrocketed among another population, a group of people that most major news outlets have blithely ignored. Older black users – who were anonymously demonized from the beginning – are being killed when dangerous synthetic chemicals are disguised as the same heroin that they’ve safely used for decades.
People who aren’t in severe pain shouldn’t use opiates. These drugs sap away life. Over time, they make pain worse, because opiates make long-term users much more susceptible to discomfort and stress.
But our laws against these drugs are making opiates lethal. If we want people not to use certain chemicals, our best bet is to provide accurate information. Banning drugs hasn’t helped: patients seeking legitimate verified doses have a harder time getting their medicines, but opiates are easy to come by on the streets. We’ve only succeeded in making them edgy, transgressive, and deadly.
After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.
A few guys looked down at the table and nodded. People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.
I gave the same answer as always.
“Drugs do it on their own. Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again. Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”
But it’s not all bleak. Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too. Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.
(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.” This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say. If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.
A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do. He’s now weathered five years of single days. But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)
I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith. It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true. There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.
Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests. In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad. But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point. You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.
“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”
Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you. Do it daily. Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change. Your words will become true.
A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful. You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it. It makes me such a jerk. I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”
Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it. And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:
“Meth? Meth is great – you should never try it.”
And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV. This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:
“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “
European eels are endangered. They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.
Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine. European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works. The drugs are still there. The eels get high.
According to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed. Then his spouse bought cocaine. This worked. Suddenly Stevenson could write again. In three days, he composed his novel.
When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical. So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again. In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.
Dr. Jekyll was a fine man. On drugs, he became a monster.
When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging. She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”
One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”
She looked down at the picture, then back up to me. First she signed the word hungry.
“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”
She shook her head. No, that didn’t sound quite right. She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.
“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”
She bobbed her head yes. No shoes. That would make her rage, too.
Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk. They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.
I demurred. I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles. I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that. I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.
In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk. Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:
Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder. Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness. I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.
The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then.
The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated. No one would ever know.
Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school. Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates.
And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition. He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.
As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark. Or tank. Arsenal. Whatever.
This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers. There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line. Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron. When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket. Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground. And this was lucky. If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron.
Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.
For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father. In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone. Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.
If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn. Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain. Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old. Why it had ended up in a garbage can.
Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother. He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned.
In a footnote, Westover adds:
Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident. His account differs from both mine and Richard’s. In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire. This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s. Still, perhaps our memories are in error. Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass. What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.
Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story. Yup, things get worse. One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.
Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury. Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.
His pupils were unevenly dilated. His brain was bleeding.
Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild. He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling. The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.
It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t. He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense. They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another.
Worse, he was violent. But unpredictably so. At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together. At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl. He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying. He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.
In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.
And yet, Westover escaped. Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.
Of course, she made a few stumbles. Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class. Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.
During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.
“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked.
Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area. But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.
I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor. Westover was shamed. In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism. The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.” Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery. A purely human evil.
Westover became a historian. After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be. Educated is a beautiful book. And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law. And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money. My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.
During my income-less years spent researching & writing a novel, there wasn’t enough money to blow any on drugs. While I was in California, though, my graduate school stipend had me feeling flush with cash — when you like to eat home-made bread and lentils there’s only so much you can spend on food, and when your big fashion shopping trip involves spelunking through the dumpsters during move-out week each year, you don’t drop much on clothes.
Plus, the attitude in Silicon Valley seems to be that, as long as you get your work done, doesn’t matter what else is going on. Stoned at work? If your work is good, nobody cares. I fondly remember helping a friend’s bleary-eyed pot-head roommate do some Matlab coding for a project while we were both in a state of significant duress — that project worked & was widely celebrated & the dude had a star named after him.
A sorta dinky star, sure, and very far away, but, still. His work will save a not insignificant number of lives. Not too shabby for something he put together while often high.
Personally, I didn’t smoke much. I like my lungs, and don’t like spending money (from my six years of grad student stipend, I socked away enough to live on for three or four years, which I figured would be plenty of time to finish my first book. I undershot by about 50%), and, besides, pot just made me feel groggy. Still, I spent a few hundred dollars on marijuana while I was living out there.
For about sixty bucks of that, I know that the stuff I bought was grown locally. The rest was of unknown provenance.
A quick internet search has revealed that my few hundred bucks could buy somebody a discounted AK.
I’ve written about the harms caused by U.S. drug policy a few times previously, but my focus is usually on our own nation’s incarceration crisis. It’s blatantly unjust to lock up so many black & brown & poor white people for behavior that middle-class whites engage in just as often without risk of punishment. I bought marijuana while I was living in California, but, as a rich white student, the biggest risk I faced was that my drugs might be confiscated and I’d be slapped with a fine. With the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project I’ve put together packages for dudes who’re serving time for possession of drugs in the same ballpark as I’ve carried.
That’s not right. It’s something that we can, and should, fix. This injustice would be significantly diminished if drugs like marijuana and cocaine were legalized.
Indeed, now that huge numbers of middle class whites are succumbing to heroin addiction, there’s talk from politicians about responding to their plight with treatment, not incarceration. Which is fine. That’s good, and correct. But it must be hard for the families of poor and minority addicts, who may have seen their loved ones incarcerated for years, to hear. To have yet more evidence that you & yours are considered less precious by our government.
Our incarceration crisis is a big deal. Millions of U.S. lives are damaged by the War on Drugs.
But I’m grateful to Ioan Grillo for teaching me about the millions of South & Central American lives lost because of the U.S. War on Drugs.
Actually, “lost” is probably not the right word. “Lives lost” makes them sound misplaced, like somebody slipped and bonked his or her head and died. Maybe the phrase “brutally wrenched away” would better describe murders via gunshot and chainsaw torture and burning alive and being hacked to bits by machetes or dissolved in giant vats of acid. Which, right. Grillo’s book is very good. His writing is lucid and forceful and he’s done excellent research. But you should know that there are passages that are difficult to read. Grillo describes a horrifying world.
It’s a world that I had misconceptions about. For instance, I’ve been fascinated by microclimes — both actual and metaphorical — ever since living in California. While biking to work, there were dips along the road accompanied by drastic shifts in temperature and humidity. While driving to the grocery store, there was the stark, sudden border between wealthy Atherton with its perfect green lawns and leafy trees and gated communities and the area just north so poor that it’s been unincorporated from adjacent communities.
I hadn’t realized that drug cartels operate in battle-ravaged wastelands closely juxtaposed to areas that look just like my home. From Grillo’s Gangster Warlords:
This bloodshed is not in the poorest, least developed region of the world. It takes place in industrializing societies with a growing middle class. Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to modernize, building gleaming shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, and designer gyms, private schools and world-class universities. Millions of visitors sun themselves in top-notch resorts on the countries’ golden beaches. This convinces some surprised visitors that the countries are on a quick path to the First World. There is real growth taking place.
At the same time, sprawling slums are home to ultraviolent gangs with links to politicians and businessmen. The parallel universes of crime-ridden ghettos and leafy middle-class neighborhoods live side by side, sometimes meeting and clashing.
Grillo also provides a lucid explanation for the feedback loop that causes violence to escalate. These passages carry added weight for U.S. readers because the same logic underlies the violence of our own impoverished communities. With poverty and some initial degree of lawlessness, people often lose their trust in police. And when people who can’t go to the police are harmed, either by violence or theft, their only recourse is to seek retribution through more violence of their own.
One alarming development is the extent to which gangsters control their own justice systems. From Mexican mountains to Jamaican ghettos, crime bosses try those accused of robbing and raping and sentence them to beatings, exile, or death. It’s jungle law. But many residents find it more effective than any justice the police and courts offer.
Wielding such power, gangster warlords threaten the fundamental nature of the state, not by trying to completely take it over but by capturing parts of it and weakening it. They chip into the state’s monopoly on violence — or, more precisely, the monopoly on waging war and carrying out justice. When the state loses this it becomes less able to impose its will on many issues, including the most basic, such as collecting taxes and policing protests. People lose faith in the government, as happened in the Mexican state of Guerrero after the Iguala massacre. Some form vigilante militias to defend themselves. Others burn town halls. If governments lose more control in this way, it could have devastating consequences.
Despite covering a lot of bleak topics, Grillo’s book was surprisingly enjoyable to read. It helps that he is such a charming, self-effacing guy. During an interview, he winds up riding in a car with his interviewee and being handed an assault rifle, at which point he commences worrying that he’ll accidentally kill himself or his companions. He mentions his fear when approaching certain murderous bigshots without making a big deal of his own courage. And the similes he uses to explain his feelings are plain-spoken but illuminating. Consider this description of the months he spent reporting on Mexico’s vigilante uprising against a major cartel:
Covering Mexico’s vigilante movement was like watching an action movie in many ways. It was full of larger than life characters, took dramatic twists, and had high-intensity action scenes. Like good movies, there were inspiring heroes on a moral mission and despicable baddies, such as Nazario [large-scale ultra-violent meth trafficker with a Jesus complex], a big enough villain for any Hollywood set. But like the best movies, it became morally hazy by the end, the heroes showing cracks, and finished leaving you with a mix of fear and hope of what might come next.
. . .
Yet, after two years, the problems of vigilantism were too big to deny. One thing is holding up the ideal of armed struggle. The other is seeing it in action. It’s ugly. As vigilantes drove out the cartel, they tortured and murdered. In 2013 and 2014, police tallies count 1,894 people killed in Michoacan [a state about midway between Iowa and Wisconsin in terms of size and population], the victims of both sides. The vigilante ranks also filled with the gangsters they were supposed to be fighting against. And you wondered how much better off anyone had become.
Unfortunately, U.S. drug policy inflates the profits available to traffickers. Even if major traffickers are killed or captured by the government or vigilantes, new criminals will likely take their place as long as those incredible profits are up for the taking.
Legalization would probably increase demand (but not by much, according that what little evidence we have), but it would also cause a major fall in price. Without the lure of easy profits, there’d be less incentive for cartels to pursue horrific violence. I don’t think I’m being overly Panglossian in assuming that more people are murderously greedy than sadistic.
I’d like to end this post with one more quotation from Grillo’s book. This passage comes from a conversation he had with a dude who grew up in the U.S., was deported over a domestic violence charge, started working for a cartel, then left the cartel to join the vigilantes when it seemed clear that they were winning.
“I flipped. I had no choice. Now I’m scared the Knights Templar [violent trafficking organization led by that dude with the Jesus complex] are going to kill this whole fucking town for turning against them.”
However, Manuel hasn’t done too badly out of the uprising. He has a brand-new truck that he “decommissioned” from a Knights Templar boss who fled town. “It’s mine now,” says Manuel, who stands a head taller than his dozen comrades in the trench.
Still, Manuel says he dreams of escaping Michoacan to return to the United States and his former life. He wonders why I, as a Brit, would want to spend any time here.
“I’d love to get out of here and go home. Why would anyone choose to live in a place like this?”
Of course, Grillo doesn’t provide an answer. That’s not his style. But, because I’m grateful for the existence of his book, I’d like to hazard a guess. Grillo chooses to live there because the War on Drugs in the U.S. and Britain causes huge numbers of people to be silently, senselessly murdered. Without the efforts of courageous journalists like Grillo, those victims would have no voice.