The Overdosing of America (or, addiction for fun and profit)

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes

Jesus Christ died for nothing

I suppose

-“Sam Stone”

John Prine


When I was young marijuana was the major “gateway drug”. During my misspent youth whilst experimenting with slipping the boundaries of adolescent boredom, there was, we were told by those wiser than us, a direct highway from weed puffing to needle jabbing. Indeed, a teacher in a social studies class of mine at the time veered off subject at one point in a “these kids today” commentary and alluded to the drug problem and the reasons for it thereof by responding to a question saying, “why do you think they’re all out there shooting pot?” He could not understand the magnitude of the laughter that followed. The wise man stood confused as all the wise guys snickered.

That type of thinking though misinformed was understandable. The truth was that many if not most of the hard-core drug addicts of my day may have toked up a bit prior to slipping that first needle into an enthusiastic vein. However, most of the people I knew never took a ride on the mainline express. Some experimented with barbiturates and amphetamines, some took comfort in hallucinogens and others dove head and nose first into the snowcapped mountains of cocaine. Of course, those substances were froth with their own challenges to an individual’s health and personal economy. The perils of addiction also were of a different nature with each of them. None of it was necessarily good and my own endeavors beyond the wonders of THC were quite limited. I never, ever got around to penetrating any veins (the very thought scared the heck out of me). I sampled cocaine exactly twice, doing so small a sniff as to make my compadres for the evening wonder why I bothered at all. I “tripped” twice and though I found the journey enjoyable I found the after effects torturous. When exhaustion overtook me, and sleep came calling, my eyelids appearing to be pinned to the front of my skull, denied it entry for hours. The second time around I experienced the same thing and decided I treasured sleep much more than flying somewhere over the rainbow for a few hours.

The fact is that yes, marijuana could be considered a “gateway drug”. But such labels too easily dismiss the harsh realities of substance abuse and belittle the basic humanity of those  who suffer from it. Just saying no is easier said than done and saying no to pot doesn’t necessarily mean that the temptation of something else won’t vie for the would-be abuser’s attention eventually. The fact of the matter is almost anything can be considered a “gateway” to some other more hellish habit. It was in the darkness of many  weekend evenings in Seravelli Playground that I first sampled the riches of such royalty as His Majesty Bud Wiser, the self-decreed King of Beers as well as the wares of Mr. John Walker, both his black and red labels, his friend from the great state of Kentucky,  Mr. Jim Beam and another southerner from Tennessee who went by the name of Jack Daniels. I certainly engaged with many other Southern Comforts. There was also a small break in the cold war with the juice from Florida oranges finding detente with the Russian Smirnoff. One night or rather in the darkness of the still very early morning after sampling either the apple wine of the Boone’s farm or the Sangria of the Yago ( my mind on this evening is still cloudy) I awakened to find myself sharing one of the  Seravelli benches with a known resident of those environs whom I once upon a time would have referred to in the distasteful vernacular as a bum . Despite the years, our realities were only separated by a few feet of wooden slats on a park bench. My own path, if not for a few fortunate opportunities to come could have very  easily been on a collision course for a future space on this shard of urban real estate. There but for the grace of god indeed, sayeth the lifelong atheist.

We live in a society of easy access to excess. We carry our phones in our pockets and we don’t pull our heads up long enough to see what’s coming much less greet our neighbor. Too often we peek only through the prisms of our own lives to explain away the difficulties others face using expressions like “if it were me” or “When such and such happened to me  I did this or that” forgetting however briefly that we do not come into this life with the same gifts or tool boxes. Addiction is complex, so why do we expect easy uncomplicated answers? The addicted come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and from either the “best” or the most troubled families. I don’t know what the answers are, there likely aren’t any, especially in a society so laden with  constant fear and the temptations of instant thrills. But this is truly one of the most shared experiences. If we ourselves have not gone through the tortures of withdrawal most of us surely know and love someone who has. Generations of war have given us generations besieged by PTSD. Cycles of economic decline have left many without either money or hope. Wages as well as spirits have been left depressed too long for too many generations of too many families.  Surely, we can pull our heads out of our phones long enough to at least plug the holes in our collective soul one at a time in the name of all that is United in these States of ours.

Gary was 16 when I saw him rolled from a housing authority laundry room on a covered gurney.  He was two years older than me and a fine third baseman. His gateway to the needle that killed him was airplane glue. A college buddy of mine never passed from his original gateway of alcohol. I truly can say I never remember seeing him with his hands sans a bottle or glass. He was gone by his early thirties. Miguel died on a staircase in the projects, still in his twenties with a needle still hanging out of his arm. A friend’s son was prescribed Fentanyl for an injury, it grabbed hold of him like a mugger in the night and even when his injury had healed he could not give it up. One night it stopped his heart cold. Another person I know was started on Oxycontin twenty years ago when it first came on the market and Purdue Pharmaceutical was promoting it as  a non-addictive alternative to the other pain killers being commonly prescribed at the time. Two decades later his addiction has numbed him to life itself as he sashays back and forth between attempts at withdrawal and pleas to procure more. In between bouts he drinks himself into a stupor and smokes cigarettes even though COPD now holds his lungs hostage. Such addictions can either take  young lives or endlessly torture the old. The “solution”, at least in my state of New York during the 1970’s was the Rockefeller drug laws. This deluxe political Filet Mignon platter with “all the fixins'” may have suited Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential aspirations as an entree for red meat law and order republicans to chew on, but it was hardly a remedy to the problem of drug abuse in his state. Instead, it needlessly added to the population of the penal institutions and likely in the process created more “criminals” than it rehabilitated. Heroin addicts as well as dealers were jailed, as  corporate dealers with the introduction of industrial produced methadone were freed to substitute one drug for another while they reaped generations of “legal” profits from addiction. When corporate drug companies have run amok the penalties imposed have rarely resulted in hard time being served by any corporate officers. Ironic to think that the very same THC that resulted in the incarceration of so many then is  being touted as a safer and increasingly legal medical alternative for what ails us today.

It wasn’t until the problem of serious opioid addiction and death came knocking on the doors of white middle class America that politicians started to take the scourge of this illness as something as serious as a public health crisis and not as merely a crime problem benefiting the often-private entities running our penal institutions. Most of the junkies I knew growing up were white but did not come from the aforementioned “good families” and their fates, whether they knew it or not were tightly bound with their brothers and sisters of color in the same projects. There is a line in The Godfather at a meeting of the five families wherein one of the mobsters, in referencing the drug business says that those dealings should be confined to black neighborhoods, saying. “They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls”. But drugs or access to them knows no such discrimination and everyone is equal in the morgue.

For the more judgmental among us it has often been easy to demonize the plight of the addicted. To such people adages like “just say no” or “just quit” seem simple enough. But until one has themselves been victimized by the ravages of addiction or has had a close or perhaps intimate relationship with someone who has; it is often difficult to grasp the intensity of this grip.  It is also often difficult to understand how this can happen. Most people don’t willingly become addicted, although it can be said that most people willingly elect to take drugs, usually without comprehending what demonic possibilities await them or possessed of an  arrogant confidence that they can control the consequences. This is true of both experimenting teens and elders over seduced by the temptations of easy does it pain medications pushed upon them too easily by medical professionals whom they trust implicitly.


My own real experience with this came in the form of a broken wrist.  I was given a limited prescription to Percocet. I was aware of both the temptations and the dangers. Whatever I knew did not prepare me for the scope of the drug’s effect.  I had decided to take a less significant amount than what was proscribed. Three and a half days days later, having taken less than half of what had been allotted, and realizing my pain seemed under control I discontinued usage. Less than twelve hours later I was vomiting things from 1962. Once that had passed,  I was still in for a full 36 hours of nausea and headaches the likes of which I would not even wish on our present occupant of the Oval Office who in January of this year cut the funding for the National Registry of Evidence Based Programs and Practices (NREPP). I wondered what the extent of my “withdrawal” might have been had my injury been worse, my prescription heavier and if my commitment to it had been years rather than days. My imagination is insufficient to such a task and I am glad for that.

Addiction takes many forms. Gambling can also be addictive presenting  both real world physical and mental health implications, not to mention the economic woes that too often reduce families to social assistance further stretching the means for these important social safety nets. Casinos and racetracks offer an often lethal combo of gambling, with the over zealous promotion of alcohol  to over addicted personalities. Indeed, in many casinos big bettors are given free drinks as they lose their sensibilities and very often the mortgage money. Nevertheless, sports betting now has been so normalized that the advent of on-line casinos is being promoted on television by retired athletes who we once asked to be role models to our youth and by actors wearing the lab coats of doctors  selling cheap laughs at what could eventually be a very dear cost. It reminds me of a generation of advertisements on television, radio and print where the likenesses of doctors were used to promote cigarette smoking.

I myself and indeed very few people that I know wish to live in  a nanny state where such freedoms are repressed and fun itself is outlawed. I have many friends who do a small amount of gambling as  entertainment and they know and respect their limits. The same can be said of  many who enjoy a beer during a ballgame, a drink after work or a small dose of THC in one of its many  present forms for a calming relief after an overbearing day. And, indeed, there are many folks who need and may always need prescription relief from intolerable pain while taking these drugs in their proscribed amounts and no more. But for many the idea of moderation is either foreign or nearly impossible and after a point no amount of demonizing, moralizing, or “tough love” is helpful. To paraphrase Shakespeare, such pronouncements are nothing but sound and fury  signifying nothing.

Education is the key but how do we have this conversation in a  society so overwhelmed with the twin aspects of denial and fear? Too often I hear people bemoan the loss of conversation in their own homes and the lack of dinner time talks with their kids. Texts now pass for real conversation, too often and to me, hilariously and sadly when the participants are sitting just feet from each other. Television supplies our opinions in bite sized bits and critical thinking is vastly criticized.  How do we have dinnertime conversation in the country that invented TV dinners? In a land of easy access to instant gratification how do we have complicated discussions?



4 thoughts on “The Overdosing of America (or, addiction for fun and profit)

  1. Thank you for this. I just want to add that my niece and many people have diseases that compromise their immune systems, causing the intolerable pain, for which opiods are the only relief. They are being forced to choose living with the pain or killing themselves because the ‘war on opiods’ is not allowing doctors to prescribe the medication they need. But all you say about addiction rings true to me, having a couple brothers who went down the cocaine lane before they figured out what they could and could not do. So many are not as lucky. take care, Margaret


    1. Thank you Margaret. Always great to get your feedback. Yes there are many people who need opioid relief, both as a measure for lifelong excruciating pain and for debilitating pain that can hopefully find an end with patience and therapy. I did touch on that in the piece but my concern is less about pain killers per se but the affliction of addiction overall from many different types of methods. Unfortunately the folks who need the type of necessary long term help that certain narcotics can supply in a temperate and holistic manner are caught up in both the political and marketing game surrounding this serious question. Thank you for your insight and talk soon. T


  2. Also loved the comment about marijuana that the teacher misunderstood. I was very fortunate to have a teacher in high school who had used it and knew it for the actual kind of stimulant it is, explained the differences in a way that we felt we could trust. If your teacher told you stuff about narcotics and cocaine, you might not have believed him, as his information about marijuana was so wrong.
    I find it interesting and frustrating that the lessons life gives us are so often ignored. My brothers used, told us about the effects, I never wanted to try them. My eldest brother died from exposure to Agent Orange during his service in Viet Nam, I want people to stop using it. My other brother died from lung cancer and my father from colon cancer because they smoked cigarettes. – I never started and wish no one else would!
    take care, Margaret


  3. Insightful and eloquent. As you wrote, we all know someone, or have experienced addiction in our own lives, thanks for making that such a personal statement and non judgemental. Isn’t it amazing to think of the sheer number of substances now available as “gateways”. And maybe more amazing, the number of humans now living with addiction.
    Enjoyed the cell phone references but think you need to develop that into a separate article. Your writing about the filled Jails and lack of accountability among the pharmaceuticals if thought provoking. Thanks for the view.


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