The Least of Us, Part Two: Big Dope, Consumerism, Supply & Demand

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

It’s hard to know where to start in delving in to Sam Quinones new book, The Least of Us. The more I read, the more I want to say in the hope of convincing everyone to read this insightful and comprehensive treatise on how we ended up where we are today in American society and why he finds reasons for hope even amid such despair.

When Sam wrote Dreamland in 2015, he was truly an anthropologist documenting the origins, development and cultural characteristics of the Opioid Epidemic. But Quinones saw beyond the opioid epidemic and warned us of the dangers of synthetic designer drugs and the kingpins who made their products in Magic Bullet blenders and illicit labs. With cheap fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine, traffickers laced it into every other street drug causing tens of thousands of deaths in America. At the same time, they made Meth more potent and cheaper, causing its own epidemic of mental illness, violence, and homelessness. It presents “the rawest face of living addiction. Meth users dragged themselves through the nighttime streets, howling, hysterical, starving.”

When he continued his investigations in The Least of Us, he came to realize that, “In a time when drug traffickers act like corporations and corporations like drug traffickers, the forces looking to manipulate our brains for profit are frightening to behold. So many more synthetic blasts compete for our brain receptors–from chicken nuggets and soda to cell phones and social media apps, methamphetamine and fentanyl.” (1) This is not news to any of us and yet we seem strangely mesmerized to our own state – and that of our children – as we continue to acquiesce to the lure of pervasive consumerism.

Big Dope – like Big Tech, Big Pharma and Big Finance – is Big Business aimed at the voracious consumer market in Western society where traffickers are producing illegal synthetic drugs of abuse year-round. No more having to wait for two or three poppy crops every year. They have easy access to world chemical markets, global banks to wash their money, and weapons to enforce their will. Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels written by journalist Ioan Grillo in Mexico, documents the ways guns are easily bought in the US and smuggled south to arm drug gangs in Latin America. Seventy percent of firearms the Mexican military seized in 2018 were made or bought in the US. But Quinones is clear that Mexico, China, and the US all share responsibility for the worldwide addiction crises.

Although the Law of Supply and Demand is commonly associated with economics, it is also part of our daily lives. When the supply of something decreases (making it rarer) or when the demand for that good increases (making it more sought after) the price goes up. Conversely, goods will decline in price when they become more widely available (less rare). This is never truer than in the world of illicit drugs.

Sam Quinones lived and worked in Mexico for 10 years and he believes “solutions will come only when Mexico and the US work together. This is crucial because walls don’t stop dope. Not in an era of free trade.” (2) He stresses that drug demand is important, but the drug epidemic begins with supply.  Remember how the opioid epidemic started? Purdue Pharma – Big Pharma – and their relentless marketing (pushing, trafficking, peddling) and unlimited supply of prescription opioids? (3)  They were the initial ‘dope dealers’ of the opioid epidemic. Or go back in time to the Opium Wars and British trade merchants. (4) And how about sugar-laced breakfast foods, snacks, drinks? (5) Did we demand them for our children or were they supplied and pushed via relentless advertising by multi-national corporations? And the motivation for all these actions? Money, and lots of it.

Next time, I will share the hope Quinones gained as he traveled the country and listened to stories from those affected by the addiction crisis. I hope that I have piqued your interest sufficiently so you will buy a copy of The Least of Us (6), read it, and pass it on to friends and family.

  1. The Least of Us, pg. 362
  2. Ibid
  3. Where the Buck Stops and Where It Is Hiding – BLOG January 26, 2020 https://opiatenation.com/2020/01/26/where-the-buck-stops-and-where-its-hiding/
  4. Laudanum––an opium tincture that contains almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine––was developed in the 16th century. Many Puritan wives of the whaling merchants used it daily. By the 18th century, the medicinal properties of opium and laudanum were well known. The Chinese knew it was addictive when the idle rich used it “recreationally”, and so they banned it in the 1720’s. But the British trade merchants (some of the early ‘corporations’) saw it as a source for additional income from their colonies. In 1839 the first wars were fought––The Opium Wars––that succeeded in opening up trade with opium from India. Those increased supplies created what we’ve all heard about – Opium Dens – that plagued China for a century.
  5. The Least of Us, pg. 81
  6. https://samquinones.com/

The Least of Us, Part One: Julian

(Translation into most languages at tab to right)

As I was driving home in 105-degree heat last week, I noticed a young man carrying a plastic bag stumble to a bus stop bench and sit down. It was clear he was homeless and it was equally clear that he was on drugs. I felt compelled to pull over. I rolled down the window and asked, “Are you ok?” He said, “No.” I asked if he needed help, and he wept and said “Yes.” When he came over to the truck, I asked if he was on drugs, and he said “No.” I said “I think you are on drugs and you don’t need to be ashamed.” He said he was, so I asked if I could sit with him and talk.

As we sat on the bench in the heat I asked what drug Julian (not his real name) was using. Fentanyl in the form of street Oxy’s that sell for $2 and come from Mexico. He is homeless, has never known his father, his mother is out of state and done with him. He is 23 years old and has been struggling with alcohol and addiction for 5 years – fentanyl for the past 1½ years. I told him about my son and said Julian was on the same path to the morgue unless he could get clean. He had gone to rehab in March with a predictably miserable 5-day detox and then was supposed to go to a sober home, but said they never got him there – probably not true. I offered to take Julian for something to eat and to try to connect him with a program to help him. While I drove and he nodded off, I called a few of the directors I knew from programs our son went to, but had to leave messages. I decided to take him home for a shower and a rest as we tried to find him a place.

My husband John prayed with this sweet and troubled young man and encouraged him to know there was hope and that he wasn’t a bad person, or less-than, but had a powerful war waging in his brain that needed medical help and emotional support. We drove him to the public behavioral health service, where he had gone in March, and got him signed in. It was an hour wait for him to go through intake again, so we left him with our names and phone numbers to give as his contacts for help so that we could follow up on how he was doing.

When we tried to follow up the next day, we found he had done a runner and never went through the intake. I would guess the fear of excruciating withdrawal was stronger than the fear of a potential or eventual death. This is so common, especially for those who have tried many times to get clean. Addiction specialist, Dr. Richard Whitney said, “Once people get addicted, they really lose the power of choice.” (1)  Even with medication, the drugs need to be out of your system first. On average, it takes 4-5 recovery attempts and 8 years to achieve one year of sobriety. After another 5 years in recovery, the relapse rate drops to 15%.(2)That is 13 years to try to undo what most commonly started as trying something fun as a young person. The chemistry in our brains needs more time to recover than a few weeks or months from the damage done by opiates.  

In 2015, Sam Quinones released his award-winning book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic documenting how Purdue Pharma – with a monopoly on the market on pain in the 1990’s with its new highly addictive drug, Oxycontin – deceptively promoted it as a non-addictive solution for every ache and pain. Then, with the lure of easy money, young men in Mexico, independent of the drug cartels, trafficked black-tar heroin to neighborhoods in America as a cheap alternative to Oxy’s. Its powerful long-lasting high then became the go-to drug for millions of young people who could heat and smoke it – our son included. Quinones states that the perfect storm was created when the pursuit of prosperity, pain avoidance, and the breakdown of close-knit family and community life, beginning in the 1960’s, created the void that those easily available opiates filled.

Quinones has recently released The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. It is the second most important book written on addiction and American society. In my next blog, I will delve into this new book and discuss where we are in the drug epidemic and where we can go from here. I personally need some hope as I see the thousands of homeless young people on the streets of my city and struggle with the tension of wanting to help prevent one more life from a literal “dead end” and feeling frustrated with the lack of effective programs to help these addicted individuals get the long-term recovery care they need. This – in a country where the majority of people seem to think that health care is a privilege for those who can afford it instead of a basic service for all Americans, including the least of us.

  1. Dreamland, pg 328
  2. John Kelly, PhD – https://www.recoveryanswers.org/

Advocacy or Cheerleading?

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. John shared about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about his life and writing our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I did not expect and will never forget. He said, “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”

An advocate is someone who works by speaking, acting, or writing truthfully on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who only supports their team or player – since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player and boost support from their fans with slogans that may or may not be true.

Serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, addictions, and racial prejudice and inequality, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.

When I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life – or anyone living with addiction of any sort – I long to be helpful in a meaningful way and become discouraged at my inability to do so. And if I feel discouraged, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope to these lives and in these circumstances?

As parents of a son with a deadly addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocates he needed. I think it is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love because we are too close to have a clear perspective. Which is why a supportive recovery community – for both the family and the one struggling – is vital. We must try and use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand or march with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.

There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I have friends involved in racial justice, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. The question is: How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?

Recovery Communities

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

What is a recovery community and what should it look like?

The answer to these questions is not simple – real solutions to real problems rarely are.

To recover means to return to a normal state of health or strength. When someone is injured in an accident or undergone surgery, they usually recover in hospital for a period of time where they can receive the special medical care that is required to keep them alive. If the injury or illness was severe or life-threatening, after hospitalization they would be moved to a rehabilitation facility where they receive appropriate and specialized care and therapy as they convalesce – they wouldn’t just go home. Convalescing is the recovery process of returning to health.

Recovery can also refer to the process of regaining possession or control of something lost or stolen. In a real sense, those who have become addicted to a substance or damaging behavior have had something stolen. That’s not a cop-out if we consider what happens to a person’s brain when addiction takes over. The chemical changes that take place in the brain steadily decrease the individual’s original ability to think clearly and make logical choices. Especially with substances, I consider that capacity to have been stolen.

Continue reading “Recovery Communities”

2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

The need has never been more urgent to alert us all to the risk of overdose facing millions of people worldwide. During the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have risen approximately 30% in many parts of the world due to isolation, unstable drug sources, and lack of reliable medical and recovery help. Even the normal inadequate support services have been seriously disrupted and diverted. And the hope of C19 disappearing sometime soon is now seen as wishful thinking – it is a new deadly virus we will have to learn how to live with.

So, what can we do to help prevent further loss of lives for those already struggling with addiction?

Continue reading “2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31”

Connection is Crucial

(Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

During a recent podcast on Straight from the Source (1), David Higham (founder of The Well, a peer-run alcohol and other drug service in the northwest of England) spoke about his life.

For more than 20 years, David was a habitual heroin user more accustomed to life in prison than the outside world. He joined a 12-step program during his final stint. Upon release, he found that sustained well-being and recovery was rare and he knew he had to help change that. What interested me most from his story was this insight:

“Drug treatment is trying to find a solution for my solution…But what’s the solution for my problem?”

Continue reading “Connection is Crucial”

Mirror Mirror

(I am re-posting this from July 4th for those who were on holiday and missed it.)

Topical blogs taken from OPIATE NATION. Translation into most languages at tab on right.

I was listening to a young man who had been heavily addicted to crystal meth. As he told his story, one of his “ah-ha” moments was walking into a bathroom in his parents’ home and seeing himself in the mirror. As he looked at the vestige of his former self – an emaciated, festered, hollow-eyed man – he remembered who he once was: a happy and carefree young person with good friends, a star athlete, a kind and honest person, a loving son. That moment of realization caused him to reach out and ask for help which eventually led to the beginning of his recovery journey.

As I heard his story, a photo flashed before my eyes of my son, JL – one we found on his phone after he died from a heroin overdose. It was a selfie he had taken after he had relapsed, just days before he died, standing in front of a full-length mirror in a public bathroom. He was dressed for work in slacks and a dress shirt. No smile. I have always wondered why he took that photo. Was it to remind himself of who he really was? To be able to be honest with himself when he might look at it later when he was high? Was he attempting to make himself stop using? To ask someone for help?

Continue reading “Mirror Mirror”

Mirror Mirror

Topical blogs taken from OPIATE NATION. Translation into most languages at tab on right.

I was listening to a young man who had been heavily addicted to crystal meth. As he told his story, one of his “ah-ha” moments was walking into a bathroom in his parents’ home and seeing himself in the mirror. As he looked at the vestige of his former self – an emaciated, festered, hollow-eyed man – he remembered who he once was: a happy and carefree young person with good friends, a star athlete, a kind and honest person, a loving son. That moment of realization caused him to reach out and ask for help which eventually led to the beginning of his recovery journey.

As I heard his story, a photo flashed before my eyes of my son, JL – one we found on his phone after he died from a heroin overdose. It was a selfie he had taken after he had relapsed, just days before he died, standing in front of a full-length mirror in a public bathroom. He was dressed for work in slacks and a dress shirt. No smile. I have always wondered why he took that photo. Was it to remind himself of who he really was? To be able to be honest with himself when he might look at it later when he was high? Was he attempting to make himself stop using? To ask someone for help?

I’ll never know.

But after listening to this other young man, I’m guessing my son had similar thoughts going through his mind. Yet, what seems to have happened is that his addicted mind told himself that he could handle it on his own – that he could just cut down his use and not have to go through withdrawal one more time, not have to be embarrassed by telling us he had relapsed after 6 months of sobriety, not have to start all over again.

Perception refers to how we interpret things and it is the motivation behind our actions and reactions. His perception of his ability to use his willpower was skewed, because our self-perception is influenced by many factors including our perceived needs, our experiences, and our expectations.

Beneath self-perception is our self-concept, our view of our self, which influences our decisions, our feelings, and our judgement. It may include genuine self-knowledge or varying degrees of distortion.

Many times, we choose – albeit unconsciously – to be self-deceived because it is too painful to be honest with ourselves, to interpret what we see in the mirror with unbiased and accurate judgement. There is a saying written in the first century AD that sums this up:

“Those who hear (a clear direction) and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are or what they look like.”

Because of this very human tendency, we all need a few close friends and a safe community who love us enough to honestly reflect back what we saw in the mirror – which we can so conveniently forget.

Celebrating Freedom and New Life

April 4, 2021

 (I am taking a break from the chapter by chapter topics from Opiate Nation to focus on the significance of this holy week. Translations into most languages available at tab to the right.)

Spring is the season of regeneration, freedom, new life. The time of year when the whole earth seems excited to be alive after being dormant all winter. For the northern hemisphere, March and April are Spring – for our friends and family in Australia, right now it is Autumn. Regardless of what season it is where you live on this planet, it is Easter Sunday and the end of Passover week. Both the Christian and Jewish traditions celebrate the freedom from bondage and the beginning of a new life, although from differing perspectives and beliefs. Both begin the time with reflection and prayer. (I don’t understand Islamic tradition well enough to comment on it except to say that Ramadan is observed around this same time of year with introspection and fasting in remembrance of Muhammad receiving the Quran.)

For Christians, the freedom is from the bondage to sin in one’s life; for Jews, it is the freedom from bondage that the Israelites suffered under in Egypt. Both faiths look to an historical event in the past. They also remind us that while bondage was dealt with symbolically once – whether personally or communally – it is an ongoing problem in this imperfect world.

Continue reading “Celebrating Freedom and New Life”

The Secret Keepers

(Twentieth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

National secrecy. Communal secrecy. Familial secrecy. Cloaked as “Discretion” it perpetuates problems. What it did for us when we found out that our son was addicted to heroin was to create a puzzle that we were forced to try to put together in the dark with many missing pieces. No one was talking – not friends, parents, school leaders. When the drug bust happened at his high school in the spring of 2005, and the administration didn’t call a meeting of all parents to alert us to what was going on, one wonders what motivation was behind that decision? Clearly, it wasn’t what was best for the rest of the students, families, or our community.

Years ago, while working through our angst with the systemic problems in organized Christianity, and continuing to run into absolute resistance, secrets, and denial, we came upon a quote that finally explained why we were not, and never would be, making headway: “If you speak about the problem, you become the problem.” This wisdom came from an important and insightful book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. But the subtle power of abuse is not limited to churches: governments, schools, communities, families—no one wants to be seen as part of the problem, especially with drug addiction and alcoholism. So, if we just keep troublesome or messy things secret, if we don’t speak about them, we can all just get along.

Continue reading “The Secret Keepers”
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