Hollywood, Drugs, and Heroin’s War Against Heroes

When it comes to heist movies, Hollywood has an inverse form of “Occam’s Razor.” The more complex and outlandish the security—from multiple checkpoints and a multitude of safeguards to cameras at every corner and monitors for every camera, from armed patrols and packs of patrol dogs to beams of infrared light that crisscross and cover the floor in an invisible layer of light—only with all of these things in place may the caper begin.

My heist formula is simpler, as the prize is worth more than cash, gold, or diamonds, and the security is almost nonexistent. Forget the guns and masks—we will not need them—when all we want is a doctor’s prescription pad. That is the real gold that every addict wants, covets, and craves. That scrip is the script behind the real-life crisis of drug addiction in America.

One sheet of that paper is more valuable than any box of rolling paper; more valuable than the contents in that case—the one next to the supermarket safe—where unlocking that panel, minus the code cards and target coordinates, is like the rules for using a nuclear missile key.

That case should attract the attention of any thief casing the joint, suggesting that the shelves hold something more valuable than what is behind the counter at the other end of the store, where a druggist dispenses pills without an ounce (or a milligram) of security. Thus is it harder to buy a pack of cigarettes than it is to rob a drug store.

Pity the smoker, then, a pariah among outcasts, while stereotypes persist about more lethal forms of addiction. For Hollywood ranks drugs by a system as medically false as it is morally wrong.

At one extreme is marijuana. From reefer to grass, from the stuff of beatniks to the blunts smoked by stoners, marijuana is material for comedians and manna for a new class of healers. It may make us mistake idiocy for genius, and cause us to believe we hold the seeds to cure cancer, but its status is benign and beside the point.

Then there is acid, which Hollywood consigns to San Francisco and the mythos of the 1960s. The drug unlocks the doors of perception, introducing us to the psychedelia of white rabbits and blue caterpillars, of grinning cats and mad hatters. In this reality distortion field, in this endless summer of love, absent the truth about the Summer of Love, there is no hate at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury; there is nary a pimp, prostitute, or pusher in sight, not even a dwarfish preacher of pap, whose rap sheet is a prelude to murder; there is nothing but love––all of it safe and free.

In this Brigadoon by the Bay, the fog does more than cover the city’s problems. It turns the California dream into an American nightmare, courtesy of cocaine and heroin.

Do not look to Hollywood to condemn either substance, not when the former is a symbol of financial success and celebrity excess, not when the latter is a form of fashion and the fashion of all that is dark and mysterious.

This is where the movie stops and my story begins, because I know too much about addiction—I know how close it is to be too close to death—to ignore how many people die from drug addiction each year.

I know that addiction does not discriminate. It neither spares the rich nor saves the poor; it neither avoids the working class nor acquits the middle class. It does not avoid Malibu, California, so it can attack the squatters and street urchins of Detroit, Michigan, instead. Nor does it exempt military veterans—including veterans of combat and combatants of valor—as if they an exception among the few, the proud, because no Marine would ever need a prescription painkiller.

I also know that Hollywood discriminates between the addict in black and the dead man who wears plaid. One is, according to the arbiters of taste, an artist; the other is your neighbor, if you live in the Rust Belt, or your neighbor’s neighbor, if you live in the Farm Belt; if you live, period, in violation of easy categorization, which means you are no hillbilly because of your addiction to a common—and legal—brand of heroin.

Where you are, where we are is less the result of individual misbehavior or collective guilt, because the evidence does more to exonerate addicts, myself included, while it incriminates those institutions we deem prestigious and beyond reproach.

We have, on the one hand, a culture and a commentariat at war with each other about the War on Drugs, with conflicting but equally erroneous claims of outrage; while, on the other, we have an opioid epidemic that beggars belief, constituting a betrayal that should force us to question what, if anything, remains of our bond with the very people some of us—too many of us—revere as priests because of our faith in that religion-by-another-name known as reason.

These priests wear white coats instead of white collars, misrepresenting the best of science by representing themselves as doctors with a devotion to science. They alone have the right, after all, to write their own commandments; to command us to accept whatever they say and do, because of their power of the pen—and their power to pen prescriptions to end our pain and ease our suffering.

And so, those who could did. They sold their souls for a feast of wealth, where the cows and calves were fattened and butchered, and the banquet was ready. The junkets were many, luxurious, and free. As for the science, few bothered to see what they suspected; that it was junk, like the junk—like the garbage or smack—they prescribed with abandon, until all that was left were abandoned towns and factories until those who were left behind were left to die.

Meanwhile, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. According to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • In 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids.
  • As many as 1-in-4 people who receive prescription opioids for noncancer pain in primary care settings struggles with addiction.
  • Every day, over 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.

The more these statistics grow, the less meaningful they will be; the more likely the apocryphal will become actual, turning a tragedy into nothing more than a statistic.

It is this question of statistics, to borrow a phrase from the late Jan Karski, that separates what we know from what we must see.

Karski was a Pole who saw his homeland divided. He saw her people destroyed. He saw how 4.9 million of his compatriots, 3 million of them Jewish, were murdered.

I mention Karski not to compare the opioid crisis with the most incomparable catastrophe in the history of the Jewish people. That would be absurd—it is absurd.

I mention him because though he was not the first to see the evil that men do, he was one of the first to try to stop the criminals responsible for the evil he had seen.

So, when I see a conservative columnist tell opioid addicts to move or die, when I see him write these things in a magazine whose founder was a proud Catholic (and a critic of the War on Drugs), I cannot help but question if this man knows what it means to be a Christian. If he is an atheist, I question if he knows what it means to be a decent human being.

I am not, however, unaware of my own failings. I call myself an addict because that is what I am: Someone who fights a daily battle to maintain my remission from this disease.

What I am not, and refuse to be, is collateral damage in a typist’s morality play or some filmmaker’s playground.

I am somebody—and so are you.

Image copyright: ossile / 123RF Stock Photo


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