Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed. This episode, Kicking the Hollywood Habit: Addiction Morality Tales and Pseudoscience Recovery Tropes, was recorded as a virtual live show for our supporters on Patreon. The original show included a number of video clips, some of which have been edited down, and some voiced-over, for the sake of clarity for the audio-only podcast release. A video recording of the virtual live show is available for our Patreon supporters. Sign up now if you want to check it out. And as always, a full transcript of the episode is also available for everyone. We’ll be doing more live shows, live chats and other events for patrons in the months to come. So if you haven’t already, become a supporter of Citations Needed to get access to all of this extra content. And now, to the show.
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show, if you’re not already, although if you’re with us live right now you almost certainly are, through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your help through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded.
Adam: And remember, when you become a supporter, you’ll get access to over 100 News Briefs, extensive show notes for every episode, our newsletter, and even sometimes some stuff like this live show or live chats with the Citations team. But enough of that, let’s get on to the show tonight, Nima. I’m excited.
Nima: So excited. Thanks, everyone, of course, for joining us. This is exciting. Our first virtual live show. We’ll see how it goes. We were gonna do a live show, actually, right before the pandemic.
Adam: Yes, we had one planned.
Nima: We were getting that all ready and it’s taken us this long to figure out how to do a Zoom call because I’m an elderly man. So, away we go.
An ambitious young man is lured into a world of drug use, his life soon in shambles. A family is forced to kick their drug-addicted son out of their home. A woman resists rehab, then embraces it, finding it the most affirming experience of her life. These plot lines exemplify the melodrama of countless films and television dramas depicting addiction.
Adam: Since the 1930s, Hollywood has cultivated a hyperbolic characterization of people struggling with substance use. In film after film, TV show after TV show, people with drug and alcohol use disorders are burdensome, reckless, meandering zombies whose only hope for recovery are punitive measures: the deprivation of necessities like housing and cars, dangerous rehab facilities and of course the always American tradition of the threat of jail and prison.
Nima: In reality, these cold-turkey, abstinence-only, “tough love” measures aren’t particularly helpful — and in fact are often counterproductive. Instead, studies repeatedly show the effectiveness of harm-reduction approaches, like treating opioid addiction with medication, but maintenance and mitigation don’t make for the same compelling drama as downward spirals and a brutal rock-bottom followed by a cathartic climactic redemption — an issue that has long affected policy and public perception of drugs and substance use.
Adam: On this very special live episode, we’ll examine the history of onscreen depictions of addiction, and we’re going to dissect the dehumanizing tropes embedded within each of them, and discuss how they relate to drug policy in the United States.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined live from Chicago — and in fact live from Adam’s living room —
Adam: He’s going to be sitting here.
Nima: That’s right — by Zach Siegel, Journalism Fellow at Northeastern University’s Health In Justice Action Lab. He’s the co-host of Narcotica, a podcast about drugs informed by science, policy, and the lives of real drug users.
Adam: Before we begin a quick caveat, this show is going to be discussing pop culture, specifically film and television representations of substance abuse and so-called recovery, and just to be clear, this was not an exhaustive show. There are thousands of television shows and movies literally that either directly or indirectly relate to substance abuse. These are examples which we feel are popular and describe a trope that we feel like is worth dissecting. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. So if we don’t get to your favorite — or least favorite, more likely, since this is a media criticism show not a media complimenting show — we apologize and by all means leave us a hostile comment to that effect.
Nima: Yeah, we welcome it. Let us know what we missed. But moving on. Substance hysteria is certainly nothing new. Back in the 15th Century, the aptly-named Pope Innocent VIII, demonized the use of cannabis and other medicinal herbs as witchcraft and authorized Grand Inquisitor Torquemada to dole out severe punishments including torture and execution, to those accused of using or promoting cannabis, which he deemed a tool of the devil.
Adam: In many ways, this Inquisition seems to have never really stopped, despite the ups and downs in the legality of certain substances over different time periods and whom they are most closely associated with. For instance, anti-Irish sentiment in the United States drove the Temperance Movement in the mid-19th century and early 20th century, which later successfully pushed for Prohibition. Meanwhile, anti-Chinese discrimination framed opium dens as places of debauchery where white women would lose their innocence, just as jazz clubs from New Orleans to Chicago did the same, but in the haze of marijuana smoke.
Nima: Now, many of the tropes we’ll be discussing today — that drugs lure innocent white people into degeneracy, that addiction is a matter of moral decay, and that the only the first step to recovery must begin at bottom rock and certainly how Hollywood had adopted and sensationalized these tropes for decades — all of these can largely be traced back to the anti-drug propaganda of the 1920s and 1930s, itself a reflection of the very anti-Black and anti-Mexican racism that was just described, as well as nativist, anti-immigration policy.
Of course, Citations Needed is a media criticism show, so it’s only fitting that we point out that it was media mogul William Randolph Hearst who popularized the word “marijuana” over the long-used agricultural and medicinal term “cannabis,” in his effort to play to the anti-immigrant sentiments of the American public in the wake of both the turn-of-the-century Spanish-American War and the Mexican Revolution a decade later. In his attempt to marginalize Mexican immigrants seeking refuge from violence, his newspapers consistently referred to cannabis as the then-obscure Spanish slang word “marijuana.” So, for instance, as you’re seeing here, this is an article from the Ogden Standard in Ogden, Utah with the headline, “Is the Mexican Nation ‘locoed’ by a Peculiar Weed?” The year this was published, 1915, Utah outlawed the use of cannabis.
Adam: Often referred to in the press as the “Mexican dream drug,” which certainly makes it more enticing, not less I have to be honest, harrowing reports of insanity and violence linked to cannabis use spread throughout the media in the 1920s.
Nima: So you can see, there are all sorts of headlines from that time referring to the “Mexican dream drug,” and this vice that needs to be addressed lest your children get a hold of it. Now by 1931, cannabis was illegal in 29 states already. In 1930, just a year earlier, Harry Anslinger became the first commissioner of the then so-called Federal Bureau of Narcotics and worked to outlaw cannabis at the federal level. Hearst newspapers around the country were only too eager to promote Anslinger’s propaganda. So you can see, there were ads that were put in, you know, ‘Beware you’re gonna go crazy, ‘You’re gonna murder people,’ ‘Keep your kids away from pot.’
Adam: And, in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively criminalized the possession of the plant throughout the United States. The act also put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, otherwise known as the DEA.
Just after the signing of the bill by President Roosevelt, Hearst’s flagship paper, The San Francisco Examiner, published this story, “Narcotic Invasion of America,” in which the Chinese government was blamed for a narcotics trade in the “Far East” that threatens, in all caps, to “INUNDATE THE WESTERN WORLD.” Only strict regulation and enforcement could adequately spare, again, all caps, the “DEBAUCHMENT OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.” Again, blaming Chinese for American drug use — where have we seen this before? — JD Vance, Tucker Carlson, etcetera.
Nima: Now, we will return to Anslinger and the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act in a little bit. But first, let’s talk about Hollywood. Since nearly its inception, Hollywood has had a pretty chummy relationship with drug policymakers and enforcers. From the Reefer Madness era of the mid-1930s through Hays Code conservatism and beyond, drugs and addiction, crime and violence have long been linked in lurid tales of innocence lost and redemption found on the Hollywood screen.
Adam: And so then we’re going to cut to the late ’90s, which gets to where the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, at the end of Reagan’s second term, they made an agreement with multiple television networks to include anti-drug messaging in show plots. So we’ve discussed the way that the military, the DoD and CIA have exchanged access, influence, government favor for basically subsidizing to the tune of millions of dollars various films so they could have control over their scripts. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy had a program that did just this in the ’90s. Now this could have continued — we don’t really know, most of this came through reporting in Salon and The New York Times in 2000 — and this included agreements with multiple television networks to weave anti-drug messaging through the show plots. If you recall also, the Gates Foundation has a history of doing this, as do the Ford Foundation and other other quote-unquote “nonprofits.” The shows that include an anti-drug messaging include ER, Beverly Hills 90210, Touched by an Angel, The Drew Carey Show, Chicago Hope and then Cosby, not The Cosby Show, but the other Cosby show.
According to a 2000 investigative report in Salon, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy arranged a deal in 1997 with networks in which it would offer financial incentives to air anti-drug messaging. The office originally bought five years’ worth of ads for anti-drug messaging at half-price. Networks eventually sought to renege on this, looking instead to air the then new dot-com ads from tech companies.
Nima: So in early 2000, Daniel Forbes wrote this in Salon:
So the drug czar’s office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: The office would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought — in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows. That created a new, more potent strain of the anti-drug social engineering the government wanted. And it allowed the TV networks to resell the ad time at the going rate to IBM, Microsoft or Yahoo.
Alan Levitt, the drug-policy official running the campaign, estimates that the networks have benefited to the tune of nearly $25 million thus far.
This was in the year 2000, so just a few years in.
With this deal in place, government officials and their contractors began approving, and in some cases altering, the scripts of shows before they were aired to conform with the government’s anti-drug messages. ‘Script changes would be discussed between ONDCP and the show — negotiated,’ says one participant.
Rick Mater, the WB network’s senior vice president for broadcast standards, acknowledges: ‘The White House did view scripts. They did sign off on them — they read scripts, yes.’
Now reporting at the same time, The New York Times noted this:
Under the program, government officials get an advance look at whatever shows the networks want to submit and an opportunity to make the case that anti-drug messages be inserted. Occasionally, the drug policy office might suggest that a scene be changed or a line rewritten to show characters turning down marijuana or ruining their lives through cocaine, said Alan Levitt, an official in the drug policy office who helped create the program.
Adam: So if you’re wondering why there was a torrent of corny anti-drug shows in the ’90s it’s because the federal government was literally paying them hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars to do this. According to Forbes’ Salon article: the show ER redeemed $1.4 million worth of time for NBC; The Practice made $500,000; 90210 $500,000 and $750,000 in different years; Home Improvement did a marijuana episode, which I watched and its as corny as you can imagine for $525,000; Chicago Hope took $500,000; Sports Night, the Aaron Sorkin show, $450,000 for their very special drug episode; 7th Heaven took about $200,000. So they’re basically getting rebates from the federal government, which is the same thing as getting paid, right? From a financial standpoint there is no real difference. This is sort of similar to the ways the FBI, CIA and DEA have kind of crafted or cultivated narratives by financially subsidizing Hollywood, which is, again, not something that’s new, but it now had shifted from making the military look good to making the DEA and the war on drugs look good.
Nima: Exactly. So, with that as our preface, without further ado, let’s bring on our guest, friend of the show, Zach Siegel.
Adam: Welcome, Zach.
Nima: So, joining us now in Adam’s living room —
Adam: Kind of have a Johnny Carson thing.
Nima: (Laughs.) Zachary Siegel, Journalism Fellow at Northeastern University’s Health In Justice Action Lab and co-host of Narcotica, a podcast about drugs informed by science, policy, and the lives of real drug users. Zach with a hearty, hearty, hearty welcome.
Zach Siegel: Hello, hello.
Nima: And I’m sorry I can’t be there with you in person, but welcome to Citations Needed. Thanks for joining us.
Zach Siegel: Thank you. Thanks, Nima. Going to be lots of fun. Let’s watch these clips.
Adam: He lives down the street so not that big of a burden, let’s not pat him on the back too much. What we’re going to do is we’re going to watch clips from various film, television, and we’re going to talk about particular tropes they represent and how they’ve kind of reinforced and begun to ooze into our pop culture understanding of drugs. One of the things Zach and I talked about when we were prepping for the show is I said to him, at some point, I had all these tropes in my head about drug and drug abuse and treatment, the idea of tough love, the idea of not enabling, the idea of rock bottom, we talked about some of these in our prior episodes we’ve done on drugs, the two prior episodes we’ve done on them, and I was like, you know, I don’t know where they came from. I feel like I was sort of born with them, some sort of innate understanding of language or music, and then it occurred to me that to a large extent, is one of the things we argue on the show, is that pop culture cements those tropes and those clichés in our brains, we sort of take for granted that that’s what that is. Now, some people listening would say, ‘Oh, it’s just a movie, who cares?’ And if you think that you probably should turn off your computer now because that’s the whole premise of the show.
Nima: You will not enjoy this.
Adam: It’s a premise you don’t agree with at all —
Nima: And also: you’re wrong.
Adam: Go listen to NPR.
Zach Siegel: It’s like the people who say, ‘Oh, advertising doesn’t work on me.’
Adam: Well, right. Well, no, it’s the old joke that television spends millions of dollars convincing the government that media doesn’t influence people and millions of dollars convincing advertisers it does. So without further ado though, we want to start with the classics. This is going to go back to 1933, which was around the same time that marijuana began to be illegalized in a very racialized way and we’re going to watch a trailer for the film Narcotic, which was pre-Hays Code, so it was very scandalous, very titillating.
Nima: Oh, yeah.
Adam: Like a lot of drug content.
Nima: People didn’t have to sleep in separate beds.
Adam: Yeah, a lot of drug content you’ll see has the dual benefit of both being kind of highbrow and that it’s sort of a social issue thing, it sort of feels like you’re sort of eating your spinach, right? But then it has the sort of titillating aspect of it. Especially the kind of dissent into white slavery.
Nima: So, let’s watch that clip.
[Begin Narcotic Trailer]
Titles read: Narcotic. The astounding biography on an addict. Interpreted by Dwain Esper.
Some of the world’s greatest statesmen, lawyers, doctors, artists have
succumbed to its lure!!
Police officer: Why didn’t you tell me before so I wouldn’t have depended on you.
Man #1: How did I know my connection was going to be knocked off?
Police officer: If I don’t get a pop right away I’ll go nuts!
[End Narcotic Trailer]
Adam: So that’s sort of a good example of what the discourse was at the time. The plot of this, generally speaking, is a promising young white medical student, William Davis, descends into opium dens in his life unravels soon after.
Nima: Of course.
Adam: This of course kind of lays the foundation. This is sort of foundational, which is that Hollywood begins to understand that drug plots are kind of instant drama.
Nima: Lives fall apart. There’s a moral dilemma.
Adam: Yeah, and this fundamentally does what we’re going to talk about again and again on this episode, which has not gone away almost a hundred years later, which is drugs, the issue of drugs and drug addiction is fundamentally a moral issue. It’s an issue of moral failings.
Zach Siegel: An individualized failing, too.
Zach Siegel: It’s all in your brain, down to your neurotransmitter, that’s where the problem is.
Adam: And therefore the solutions are individualistic and moralistic in nature. Obviously, there’s a ton of racism in this movie, which obviously won’t shock our listeners, this was made in 1933.
Nima: Same year as King Kong incidentally.
Adam: There’s another medical student named G. Wu. He’s an Asian character, who sort of lures him into using opium, and he becomes addicted after one puff of opium. His wife reads a book about addiction that includes the platitude, quote, “You can take it out of your body, but not out of your mind.” Which again, is another kind of conventional wisdom established. There were other films that had similar downward spiral narratives: The Pace That Kills, 1936; Marihuana — Weed with Roots In Hell, 1936; Cocaine Fiends. So early on Hollywood loved the idea of marijuana drug pictures, not only did they kind of reinforce the bourgeois —
Adam: Power structure at the time, which had a very heavily racialized and moralistic approach to drugs, but also, again, they serve the dual purpose, that is not going away today, of being also very titillating. Who would not want to watch someone struggle with this very epic moral arc of addiction and recovery or addiction in death?
Zach Siegel: What’s also amazing is the durability of the ‘one hit and you’re hooked’ idea. Trump’s Surgeon General, we have a new one now, he did the one hit and your hooked thing, yeah, just a couple years ago, and he’s a medical doctor, they think that.
Adam: Well, appointed by Trump, though. I mean, you know.
Nima: Yeah, a medical doctor. As Paul Iannucelli wrote in a 2001 paper written for the journal UCLA Entertainment Law Review, which I am sure everyone has read and has a subscription to, he wrote this, quote:
The message of [the movie] Marihuana [from 1936] and the other films is quite clear: don’t even think about trying drugs unless you are prepared to sacrifice everything, including your money, your honor, and probably your life.
And in the trailer of the film entitled Marihuana from ’36, there’s a title card that reads this, quote, “Made with the cooperation of the state, federal, and police officials.” So yeah, you know, I mean, this was around the time that Reefer Madness came out, that was also 1936, but Zach, can you kind of tell us about how these movies not only did the moral decay plotline, but always wove in the tropes about whiteness, and the threat to sanity, to safety, to security, that is rooted in I think, a lot of racist tropes that we see in and out of these movies as well.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, I was listening to your riff at the top of the show and it reminded me of the opium dens and all the rhetoric and the nativist sentiment around opium dens all directed toward Chinese migrants who came here to build railroads and it was all about innocent young white women who would get lured to these dens, and in this kind of sexualized narrative, the Chinese migrants would be preying on these pristine, white, high-class women and like that is not allowed, and it was the drug, the opium, that was sort of the most obvious tool to use to essentially regulate Chinese migrants outside of the city. It’s like, get them out, and they were all in these vice districts, and so just from the jump the drug has always been a really useful tool to serve whatever interests and agenda you want, whether it’s fighting communism in the Global South and across Latin America, you can just use the drug war as an excuse.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like holding on football, it happens on every play, it depends on whether you call it and there’s always gonna be drugs and every culture and if you sort of say, ‘Oh, well, we need to fight drugs in Colombia, and by the way, we’re going to kill some FARC rebels or fund some contras in Nicaragua.’ I mean, it’s sort of, you can use it for anything you want and that works domestically as well, obviously, if you don’t like Cubans, you know, or Latin American immigrants coming to Florida say, ‘Oh, they’re all coke heads.’ You don’t like Chinese coming, say they’re all opium dealers. You don’t like black people, say they’re all potheads. It is a skeleton key for racists.
Nima: Yeah, there’s also, you know, I mean, there’s the anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Latino racism in all of this. There’s also I think, you know, coming in the decade following suffrage, right, and roaring ’20s, and then you get into the ’30s, there’s this idea of making sure that women don’t feel too liberated, right? And the choices that they are making are also, you know, ‘Oh, they’re going to be lured into this seedy, seamy underworld so you better lock up your daughters,’ right? And I think we see this manifest, you know, we were saying earlier that, oh, they’re just films, right, but a lot of these came out in the mid ’30s and as we noted earlier, in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act, which placed a tax on the sale of cannabis was passed. The Act was authored, again, by Harry Anslinger, the then commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and pushed through the Ways and Means Committee in Congress. It’s been argued, actually, that Congress members close to industrialists like Lamont Dupont and Andrew Mellon, who didn’t want their business investments in synthetic materials competing with the then lucrative and very growing hemp industry really pushed this bill through. It’s also, you know, been shown that doctors at the American Medical Association didn’t even know that the Marijuana Tax Act had to do with cannabis because they never called it marijuana. They only knew this plant as cannabis and for its medicinal purposes. So, a couple days before, you know, arguments were going to be made on the floor of Congress, the doctors who really opposed the Marijuana Tax Act, for obvious reasons, they used cannabis in their treatments all the time, they had almost no time to prepare a counter argument, because they had no idea that the Marijuana Tax Act had to do with this thing that they had been using for decades.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, that’s always sort of a pattern in these hearings, where they’re talking about physiology, they’re talking about science, they’re talking about medicine and you have a slack-jawed DEA agent hosting and giving the information and rarely do you see someone from the Health and Human Services Department on the floor. It’s always the Senate Judiciary Committee, talking about drugs, never the health committees.
Nima: Yeah. It’s actually kind of amazing. If you read the transcript of Dr. William Woodward, who testified against this bill in Congress, he’s like, ‘There’s no medical or scientific evidence that use of cannabis leads to addiction or violence or insanity,’ and he’s like, ‘I know you’re reading that in the media,’ and then members of Congress are like, ‘Well, how can you dispute that when there’s so many reports about it.’ And so, it’s like, I think this gets to the heart of what we talk about on Citations Needed a lot, which is the influence of the media, whether it is news media or pop culture, has really serious implications. The doctors were not consulted, the poverty researchers were not consulted, the health officials were not consulted, this was pure fearmongering that had so much more to do with newly arrived Mexican immigrants, with the popularity of jazz, and this was all really weaponized and used to great effect by Harry Anslinger and others to create this climate of criminalization.
Adam: And Harry Anslinger, who was the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as we mentioned, he consulted closely with the film studios in their portrayal of drugs in film, specifically, Mayer, the head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, MGM, he worked with him constantly to sort of make it accurate or give it kind of what they believed at the time or alleged at the time was verisimilitude, but of course, it was, you’ll see this again and again, the most generous interpretation is like let’s scare the shit out of people so they don’t use it by taking what is at a two to a twenty, ,then they portray that in film and in the media to sort of scare, but again, is very generous interpretation. This is probably maybe too generous, certainly too generous, but then that turns to a feedback loop where people don’t know that they’re just being hyperbolic or they’re sort of trying to scare people, but they think that’s actually real, something we’ll run into time and time again.
Nima: We’re gonna fast forward a few decades, you can follow the then Hays Code era, mid-century, how drugs are portrayed, but there’s a lot less kind of Reefer Madness type stuff going on, just because of what was portrayed. We’re going to get back to some of those. I mean, you can see in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, there’s a marijuana subplot, which is ludicrous. But let’s get to the ‘80s.
Zach Siegel: Drugs in the ’80s were a vibe, so I’m excited for this.
Adam: So then you had, again, you have Reagan’s kind of resurgence war on drugs, just you know, and then films began to reflect that. In 1988, as we mentioned, Reagan began to start the effort to kind of reach out to Hollywood to do anti-drug stuff. At the time, there was a group called Toughlove, and this program, which began in 1981, with support of Department of Justice money, and in certain Republicans, their whole thesis was that we had been enabling and coddling drug addicts for too long. So this dovetails with the more severe, more punitive, obviously, the war on crime, federal drug laws got stricter, more severe, there was this idea that you had to scare people with some sort of harsh punishment, and we’re gonna watch a rather long scene from that, we may have to get through it a little bit, but the long and short of it, the trope we’re discussing is this idea that literally, it’s in the title, Toughlove, you need tough love, and the idea that parents and loved ones and siblings and sons and daughters should not enable.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Something I believed for many years, because I don’t know, again, I don’t know where it —
Zach Siegel: Helping them is hurting them.
Adam: Helping them is hurting them. And by the way, all bullshit, not true at all, absolutely no empirical basis at all.
Nima: And we’ve seen this obviously follow through to shows like Intervention, which we’ve discussed previously on Citations Needed.
Adam: So in this show, their son played by Jason Patric —
Nima: Bruce Dern.
Adam: And Bruce Dern, he’s phenomenal, he’s such a good actor in this too. He’s the only one really trying here, he’s doing his best here. Jason Patric is arrested for, they’ll explain it, but basically, he’s on a downward spiral and his parents have run out of options.
Nima: So they go to the support group.
[Begin Toughlove Clip]
Rob Charters: And I thought that I could handle it the same way that I’ve always handled it. By being fair, and trying to see his side of it. Why shouldn’t it work? It always worked with Scott. I guess I just couldn’t admit that I had a kid who had a problem I couldn’t solve. For God’s sake, that is my job. You know, I look at Gary sometimes and I don’t even know who he is anymore.
Jan Charters: We just feel so lost. I don’t know why. I mean, I went through a rebellious period and my parents lived through it.
Woman: But our parents were dealing with skipping school and smoking cigarettes. We didn’t have some sleaze around every corner, selling us chemicals that could kill us.
Adam: So this is a very popular Boomer line, you see this over and over again. Our drugs were innocent their drugs are hardcore. When we smoked weed in the ’60s it was for enlightenment.
Nima: We were just being a little rebellious but they’re really going off the deep end.
Adam: Home Improvement does this line, you see this over and over again because you have to kind of bracket the ’60s drug use of all these fucking Republican boomers, right?
Woman: Because a crisis brings change, and that’s what you need.
Jan Charters: It’s like sitting on a time bomb.
Man: So let the bomb explode and let Gary clean up the mess.
Adam: So this is central to the philosophy, you’re supposed to let the bomb explode. And again, this is real. Toughlove is a real group in the ’80s that courts would force kids to go to and parents would seek out for their children.
Zach Siegel: It’s also embedded in the treatment industry. It’s just part of, it’s a particle in the atmosphere, it’s just there.
Adam: Taken for granted.
Zach Siegel: Yeah. Conventional wisdom.
Adam: Not all though, right? But a lot of them.
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Adam: Especially in the ’80s and ‘90s.
Jan Charters: Oh, dear God.
Police officer: I’m going to need one of you to come down to the station.
Rob Charters: And what happens if we don’t come?
Nima: They’re getting tough.
Police officer: They’ll keep him in custody.
Jan Charters: Keep him.
Police officer: Excuse me?
Jan Charters: Keep him. We’re not going to get him out.
Rob Charters: You heard my wife, officer. Goodnight.
Adam: Even the cops like you guys are assholes.
Nima: Yeah, guy’s like, ‘I’m a cop and I think you guys are assholes.’
Zach Siegel: The cop is also like, ‘Your kid should be in jail.’ (Laughs.)
Adam: Yeah, ‘I just got done arresting some poor Black kid and even I’m offended by what you did.’ So he struggles, which is really important. They’re struggling, they’re struggling.
Zach Siegel: He’s got a little blankie or something.
[End Toughlove Clip]
Nima: Well, Zach talked to us about the danger that the ‘rock bottom,’ ‘don’t enable’ trope, which you know, is a trope in these shows and in these movies, but again, very, very real implications. They’re not just media tropes, they are taken from and then reinforce reality and lives are destroyed in the process.
Zach Siegel: There’s just no health condition like addiction where the person suffering has to suffer more in order to get treatment. Let’s say a diabetic is in diabetic shock, ‘Oh, yeah, they need to experience this so then, now that they’ve gone through such hell, they will be compliant with their medication,’ or something.
Zach Siegel: It’s this idea that suffering and that one needs to suffer and it’s very puritan, Protestant, there’s some nobility engendered by suffering and no, it’s actually just suffering, and this person could overdose and die or live on the street. How is that helping them?
Adam: The empirical basis for this is non-existent, right? I mean, that’s the thing, too. There’s so many isms and truisms that emerged from basically Protestant old wives tales, to put it in a somewhat dated way.
Zach Siegel: It’s lore.
Adam: It’s lore, and the Toughlove movement, which again, I think a lot of people adopted. I mean, I personally know people that have adopted this idea that you need to hit rock bottom, you need to force them. Otherwise, you’re enabling. So talk to us about this trope of enabling. We briefly discussed it on a previous episode, but I want to talk about enabling.
Zach Siegel: What’s happening now in the whole enabling and coddling discourse is it comes up as a counter argument to harm reduction. So, syringe service programs that distribute supplies so that people don’t get HIV or hepatitis C or any other numerous blood borne diseases and infections. ‘No, you can’t give them those supplies, because that is furthering the addiction that is enabling,’ and it’s like, okay, so take away the supplies. Now they have HIV, and they’re still addicted so what’s the calculus here? Just make their lives worse.
Adam: Again, like you said, we don’t do this with diabetes or heart disease or cancer.
Zach Siegel: There’s no donut courts for a diabetic who is not eating right. Of course, there’s behavioral aspects to all of our health and addiction is literally defined as compulsive use of a substance despite the adverse and negative consequences. So how are we going to pile on consequences and expect someone to get better?
Adam: Well, because it’s based on, I think, a very Protestant assumption that if someone’s doing something that’s bad, and you sort of help them that it creates a moral hazard, that by helping them they’re going to keep doing it, because you’re just sponging off. It’s a very sort of welfare queen, ’80s, ‘90s.
Zach Siegel: Yeah and what a lot of the research shows is that when people actually start visiting a local harm reduction program, like a syringe exchange, they’re making contact with health professionals in a nonjudgmental setting for probably the first time. So after repeated exposure to people who actually care about them, actually want to help them, then they start to see like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m worth a damn, this person is caring for me,’ and then that’s the entryway to more services and if that person wants treatment, that’s the door they’re walking through to get it.
Adam: As a repressed Protestant, my intuition is to say that that kind of has a logic to it, right?
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Adam: But you’re saying that there’s actual science and studies that show that that’s not the case.
Nima: I’m just a hedonistic atheist, I have none of that in me.
Adam: That’s true.
Nima: (Laughs.) But let’s watch the Thanksgiving scene.
[Begin Toughlove Clip]
Rob Charters: Somebody throw a biscuit this way.
Jan Charters: Hello.
Jan Charters: Hi, Gary.
Gary: Look Mom, you got to get me out of here. I mean, you don’t know what it’s like here.
Jan Charters: Honey, you know the deal, we’ll talk to you when the 30 days are up, and in the meantime, if you need anything you just call Danny or Beth and they’ll bring it next time they visit you.
Gary: No, Mom, it’s Thanksgiving.
Jan Charters: (Hangs up phone.)
[End Toughlove Clip]
Zach Siegel: Oh, my God.
Adam: “Mom, it’s Thanksgiving.” Clank! Go chew on some processed chicken, that’s gonna be your Thanksgiving dinner, you fucking degenerate.
Zach Siegel: That’s right.
Nima: “And when you get out you’re going to thank us.”
Zach Siegel: I feel like Toughlove, like you can draw a straight line to Scared Straight, that was a whole other kind of drug scare where there were Scared Straight programs. So my friend and reporter Maia Szalavitz, who’s been on your show, she wrote this huge book, this exposé about these wilderness camps and these wilderness treatment programs where essentially a teenager is kidnapped in the middle of the night.
Zach Siegel: By big-ass bodyguard dudes, hauled into a van, put on a plane and dropped in the wilderness of Montana or Utah, where there’s zero regulations for any of these things and then they’re just thrown in the wilderness and kids have died at these places.
Adam: Oh, yeah.
Zach Siegel: They get abused at these places. They’re just told to survive and that’s Scared Straight, and I had friends in high school who went through this whole ordeal. Every kid who got picked up by bodyguards from their bedroom in the middle of the night, they came home like three months later, worse off, like they were just shells of their former selves, like husks, they were just traumatized. You just piled on a whole new mental health distress on top of whatever caused them to go there.
Nima: Right, and there’s no evidence, again, that doing this is helpful or healthy.
Adam: But it kind of sounds like it would work, right? Because, you know, to some extent you understand why parents would resort to these things, right? Not to necessarily apologize, but when people are desperate they don’t really know, the medical community, as we talked about offline, in many ways, early on, kind of washed its hands of addiction, substance abuse treatment, and said, ‘Okay, let AA handle that, let the fucking’ because it was a moral issue this was the domain of priests and rabbis and preachers, not medical professionals. Again, we’re not we don’t want to be too scientist here, there are issues with medical professionals, the AMA especially, but certainly going to school for seven years and wearing a lab coat is probably better than some guy who got certified as a preacher —
Zack Siegel: Yeah. Has a two-week certificate.
Adam: From the North Hollywood Upstairs Treatment Christian Center for whatever.
Zack Siegel: There’s facilities in states now where the only requirement to work for them is that you perhaps have a couple years sober yourself and maybe have some kind of certificate. No masters-level counseling, no higher credentials, and of course, there’s problems with those credentializing kind of aspects of things, but if someone is sober, it gets into this kind of thorny territory where it’s like, ‘I got sober, so you can do it, too, and thus, I’m an expert.’ If I have cancer, I don’t care if my surgeon also had cancer, I want good treatment, right?
Zack Siegel: That’s not how you judge what is effective and if someone is sober, it’s like, yeah, you’re probably an expert on your own experience and that’s valuable, but that doesn’t mean you can extrapolate and generalize to everyone beyond your experience.
Nima: Right, which kind of gets back to the individualization of the problem, right? It’s that you have your addiction because you’ve made this choice, it’s a moral failing on your part, as opposed to like, it’s not going to be like, ‘Well, you have your cancer.’ But I mean —
Adam: Yeah, so this brings us to our next movie, which has a very kind of popular, very, very common depiction of treatment, which is New Jack City, a very classic movie, very beloved Mario Van Peebles, but again, it was a product of its time. It was a product of the early ’90s and very much has a very cliché, but at which at that time is very standard, which we’re going to talk about with 28 Days from 2000, which is one of the most, I would say the most consequentially problematic trope, which is — and this is sort of one half, we’re going to get to the second half when we discuss 28 Days — that police are actually social workers with guns who are out to help people with drug addictions and that police are there, that the sort of medical issues behind drugs and the criminal crime issues, policing issues get muddied in this movie to where Ice-T, as the cop, is helping out —
Nima: Yeah. Exactly, is the counselor. So before we get to the clip, let me just give a very, very brief synopsis of New Jack City for those who have not seen it. Focuses on Nino, a crack dealer, played by Wesley Snipes, in 1980s Harlem. The addiction storyline is a subplot but it goes basically like this: a young man Pookie, played by Chris Rock, is addicted to crack and eventually rescued, and we will see some of that, by cops. The cops are Judd Nelson and Ice-T, who bring him into rehab and introduce him to Narcotics Anonymous. Now through this program, Pookie, Chris Rock, becomes sober, and of course — what does he do? — like any good recovered crack addict, he later works out a deal with the cops to go undercover at the crack house run by Nino, again, who is Wesley Snipes. So we’re gonna see a few clips from New Jack City that tell this addiction subplot.
[Begin New Jack City Clips]
Pookie: Come on, man, don’t hurt me man.
Man: Shut up.
Pookie: This crack shit, man, has got me. I got no control over it, man. I tried to kick it, man, but the shit be calling me, man, it be calling me, man. I just got to go to it. I need help, man.
Man: Come on, man.
Intercom: Dr. Jackson, Dr. Jackson.
Scotty: Hold him for me.
Pookie: What you writing, man, what you writing?
Scotty: “Pookie” Benny Robinson. Your name, motherfucker.
Pookie: Leave me alone, man.
Scotty: I’m trying to help you myself, man.
Pookie: You ain’t helping nobody!
Scotty: It’s for your own good.
Pookie: Fuck you, man!
Scotty: They’ll hook you up.
Pookie: I’m going to die, get the fuck off me, man.
Scotty: They’re going to help you, man. They’ll help you.
Zach Siegel: So there’s no withdrawal from cocaine, by the way, physiologically.
Zach Siegel: No, you don’t shake from a cocaine withdrawal.
Zach Siegel: You have a psychological craving.
Adam: You get depressed, though, right?
Zach Siegel: Yeah, like you’re tired, you’re hungry.
Adam: Like, if I had sugar at 5am I would get depressed the next day.
Zach Siegel: That’s a crash.
Adam: Yeah, it’s a crash but it’s not withdrawal.
Zach Siegel: You’re not shaking.
Adam: No, no, I’m eating a burrito and sunglasses on indoors.
Zach Siegel: You need a nap and a sandwich.
Adam: Yeah. Not to trivialize it. Don’t do drugs, kids. They’re not cool.
Man #1: Don’t leave before the miracle happens.
Man #2: This program has revolving doors, just because you go out, don’t necessarily mean that you can come back in.
Zach Siegel: Then it’s not a revolving door.
Nima: It’s the opposite of a revolving door.
Woman #1: It’s crazy, because I did everything. I whored. I ripped my family off. I mean, I was so scandalous, I would even sell my baby’s Pampers.
Woman #2: I have a crack baby. He was born blind. I know why he’s blind, I mean, everybody knows why he’s blind. I kept telling myself I was going to kick, but I never did. I’m a junkie. I’ll be a junkie the rest of my life.
Pookie: It’s the first time I’ve ever been away for so long and personally, I hope I never see you motherfuckers again.
[End New Jack City Clip]
Adam: So this is a sort of typical recovery arc you see in TV and film, right? I don’t want to pick on New Jack City, it’s problematic but it’s very much a product of —
Zach Siegel: It was a classic recovery montage.
Adam: It’s very much a product of its time, right? There wasn’t really any kind of counter narrative. It was just, you go there, you get clean, you come out and everything’s fucking dandy.
Nima: And then you work for the cops. (Laughs.)
Adam: Well, yeah. Setting that aside. So so so Zachary Siegel, what is wrong with that narrative and why the very, very common narrative? Now again, I want to qualify it’s a fucking movie and there are reasons why it exists and everything has to be pat in a movie, right? People fall in love in a montage so it’s not, you know, it’s not necessarily supposed to be realistic, but it does prop up a general moral arc of recovery.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, what really latched out to me from watching this is in the crack era, it was always environmentalized in black communities and urban settings, and we know now today that the majority of people using crack at this time were white people, and that’s always been the case, and yes, crack was sold in these communities and absolutely harmed these communities, but I feel like it’s just reinforcing the dominant narrative that crack is a black drug and powder cocaine is a high-class white drug, and in terms of recovery, this was like a classic diversion case where the cops take him out of the somewhat punitive system and try to get him into a therapeutic right recovery system. But I think one problem with cocaine in particular, and crack is we don’t have really good treatments for them to this day. That’s why I saw him exercising, honestly, outside of counseling, and eating and sleeping right and exercising, there’s not a ton you can do to even treat a cocaine or crack addiction even to this day, and that’s a product of it being considered this degrading addiction that doesn’t require research, that doesn’t require funding to actually set up a standardized, medicalized, therapeutic model to treat this problem. So in that environment what do you have? You have self-help groups and mutual aid support groups, which are fine. Self-help and support groups are great. But again, let’s talk about other health conditions and other diseases or diabetes, if someone has a broken leg, you don’t send them to a support group.
Adam: Well, you could, right?
Zach Siegel: You could.
Adam: But certainly it wouldn’t be adequate.
Zach Siegel: Yeah it wouldn’t fix and heal.
Adam: If I have cancer, I can go to a support group, but people wouldn’t say that that’s all you need, go home.
Zach Siegel: That’s not the treatment. Right.
Adam: But that’s what we do with drugs even to this day.
Zach Siegel: It’s group therapy and self-help. That’s the treatment and it’s ineffective, it’s an adjunct to treatment.
Adam: Yeah, right.
Zach Siegel: Something to help someone.
Adam: Because we do know that social bonds are important and one of the things that, and other things too, because we don’t want to bash, you know, if it works for you do it.
Zach Siegel: Always. 100 percent.
Adam: It’s cheap. We have a Medicare system where people don’t have access to —
Zach Siegel: Yeah, it’s free everywhere else.
Adam: Yeah, it’s free and everywhere.
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Nima: Thank you, Zach, actually, for pointing out that if we had endless time, you know, I think you could do a whole show on cocaine in ’80s movies with white Wall Streeters having a good time and it’s exemplary of luxury and having a good time.
Zach Siegel: De Palma, Scarface.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. I mean, all of it. And then you see crack depicted and how that is depicted always from Fresh to New Jack City to even Friday.
Adam: Or, you know, the ultimate being, “Hans, Bubby, I’m your white knight.”
Nima: “White knight.” Die Hard, my favorite.
Adam: For the record, that guy tried to be a peacemaker, and they made him the bad guy, I know he had a bit of a coke issue, but —
Nima: It’s true and then he went on to direct the movie PCU. So there you go. Moving on to our number four, we’re gonna go to the late ’90s now, 1998 episode of the TV show Chicago Hope.
Adam: So many of these television examples, as we mentioned earlier in the intro to the show, these are not just tropes that sort of exist in the kind of ether a culture, these shows and other shows from around ’97 to 2000, could have been before, could have been after, we don’t know, this is just what the FOIA request, and at the time and Salon and New York Times revealed, they were literally getting paid to weave in anti-drug messages into their show. So this is sort of a more direct form of government interference into pop culture and this episode of Chicago Hope we’re gonna watch, this was right when they were building up to the rave panic of the late ’90s, early 2000s. There’s a very specific plot in Chicago Hope in 1998, which was paid $500,000 in ad money by the Clinton White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, at the time of the getting paid they had one real drug themed episode and this was the episode, it was about a plot involving a dose of a kind of an MDMA, PCP-type drug that was killing unsuspecting, presumably because of their class status, undeserved victims. So let’s watch these clips. They’re a little bit over the top.
[Begin Chicago Hope Clips]
EMT: Female teenager fell down at a party, probably drug OD. IV with normal saline, started in the field. Narcan. No response.
Man #1: Any idea what they took?
Woman #1: Whatever it was must have been a bad batch.
Man #1: Diane!
Woman #1: We’ve got twelve more victims on the way.
Man #1: Whoa, whoa, whoa, the rest?
Woman #1: Let’s get these guys into rooms three and four.
Man #2: Drug OD, party, came in disoriented and there’s two more behind me with the same symptoms.
Man #3: Can’t visualize a course through all this vomit.
Woman #2: Is she going to be okay?
Woman #3: She’s waking up.
Man #3: One milligram propofol, 25 milligrams of meperidine so I can intubate.
Woman #2: We were just trying to get a buzz going. Nothing bad ever happened before.
Woman #1: Well, it’s happening now.
Man #3: Let me give you something that’s going to try and help you relax, okay? Give me the ventilator.
Mitchell: I was lying down and they were crawling all over the grass.
Man #4: So Mitchell, there are no ants inside your hand, okay? I promise you.
Mitchell: I can feel them though.
Man #4: You took a bad drug Mitchell, but you’re in the hospital and you’re okay. I got that. Anything in a bottle? Pills, loose joints? Anything that could be the drug?
Woman #4: Any luck?
Man #4: No, not yet. We got about three or four more coming in. You ready?
Man #5: Yeah, this guy in curtain four says they are on blue nitro.
Woman #4: What’s that?
Man #5: That’s the street name for a precursor to a gamma hydroxybutyrate. That’s GHB.
Woman #5: That would explain the respiratory depression, but what about the freakouts? It’s more like PCP.
Man #5: Well, obviously, they haven’t perfected the recipe.
Man #6: You’re going to have to take it easy, sir. Relax.
Man #6: Can we have some security please!
[End Chicago Hope Clips]
Adam: So this is, again, this was done almost certainly in concert with the White House Office for Drug Policy. When The New York Times reported on this in 2000, again, this came out in 1998, but the sort of reports were in The New York Times in Salon were in 2000, they asked one of the producers — which in TV usually means the writer — what they thought about this and their article said:
Like several other producers whose shows were used to help generate network credits, John Tinker, who produced the medical drama series ‘Chicago Hope,’ never knew that his shows were being sent to the government. ‘I would certainly have liked to know about it,’ Mr. Tinker said.
So the writers themselves were getting notes and revisions from NBC or CBS corporate who were working with the White House, the Clinton White House, and they were literally editing lines and shaping the narrative, and so this for obvious reasons, what I think it appears to be, and this is around the same time 1999, 2000 that the Clinton White House, the White House Drug Policy Council was writing white papers and reports warning about the use of club drugs and club uses. They bought a bunch of ads, telling people not to do drugs at clubs. Now, again, the generous interpretation is the goal of this episode is very clear, just to scare the shit out of parents and kids into not taking drugs, because you could have this bad batch, right?
Adam: And the problem with this is that if you have a drug policy, and this dates back to the ’30s of let’s just scare the fucking shit out of people without any scientific basis — aside from the fact that it is lying to people — it has a feedback loop into how people interpret the severity of the moral panic of drugs, which itself then goes on to inform policy, which a cynic could argue — which we don’t want to be a cynic — but a cynic can argue that that’s kind of the point, right?
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Adam: The point was to hype up the fear of drugs to win over middle-class voters to justify the US war on drugs in Latin America and East Asia and elsewhere to kind of give it some moral heft by weaving it into pop culture, because they’re smart enough to know that if you again, ER, Home Improvement, dozens of other shows, by the way, ER, during the timeframe from ’97 to ’99, took $1.4 million in ad money, subsidies and they had several plots involving crack babies, one of which was a total non sequitur that was clearly just put in there because the White House wanted them to which itself has its own — crack babies is a total myth, by the way.
Zach Siegel: Not really.
Adam: But so I want to talk about that, and specifically, I want to pivot to this, of course, laid the groundwork for the 2002 RAVE Act, which was specifically targeting this moral panic around drug use at raves.
Zach Siegel: So the RAVE Act, it’s an acronym: Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act. How clever is that?
Adam: You wrote an article about the RAVE Act and Joe Biden specifically — what was that? New Republic?
Zach Siegel: I think in The Appeal probably, and it was during the primaries. I was unpacking Biden’s legislative legacy and they —
Adam: And they accused you of being a Bernie bro.
Zach Siegel: Oh, yeah, that did happen. All of this is coming from these kinds of freak accidents that happened at raves and shows and concerts, and what this was really about in this era, there was an underground culture in the ’90s people would go to warehouses in Chicago, and there would be electronic house music, it was like a scene. It was something new. And of course, at these places, they weren’t always well ventilated, there wasn’t always water for everybody, like the environment in which people were using MDMA, Molly, ecstasy, whatever it is, that was causing some people, in rare instances, to have a bad reaction. And so in New Orleans, forgot what theater it was, but at a theater in New Orleans, they were doing a show and this young 17 year old girl died, and it could have been from heat stroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, they don’t know, but they immediately blamed MDMA and that set off this whole cascade of panic.
Nima: It was the State Palace Theater.
Zach Siegel: State Palace Theater, yeah.
Adam: In Chicago it’s called Blue Nitro.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, right.
Adam: Which again, sounds so cool and now I want to do Blue Nitro. They haven’t probably, like, what’s your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery? It’s like, well, blue nitro, I got to know now.
Zach Siegel: All of this feeds into just the zero tolerance, just say no, kind of attitude, which, if this were happening in a sane world that actually knew what drugs were, they’d be like, ‘Okay, okay, you’re using drugs in a warehouse with no windows, maybe crack open a window, maybe ventilate this place, maybe have free water for everybody.’
Adam: Sounds like you’re enabling.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: Don’t enable, Zach.
Zach Siegel: It’s the same thing and part of the insidiousness of the RAVE Act in particular was that things like water bottles were paraphernalia.
Nima: If you thought that you needed to give people water, because if people doing drugs get dehydrated, and you maybe think about this in advance, so you have water on hand, that means that you are aware of what will probably go down at your rave, and therefore you are enabling.
Zach Siegel: Yeah. It’s a thought crime.
Nima: Now, to put an even finer point on this, the RAVE Act of 2002 was introduced to Congress by none other than Joe Biden and we have a clip from Biden in 2001, the year before, where he boasts about his anti-drug credentials, and promotes a crackdown on raves. Let’s watch that clip.
Joe Biden: Richie Daly, who I think is one of the best mayors in America, and he is focused on the drug problem, I think this is more of a local problem. If I were a governor of my state or mayor of my town, I would be passing new ordinances, relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who held a rave, the promoter, the guy who owned the building. I would put the son of a gun in jail. I would change the law. But we’re afraid to do that because we affect commercial interests, they get kind of shaky when we do that. I would be moving vigorously. It’s no, you can ask my cops are going to come and testify, and you know your folks, there’s no doubt about where these raves are. In the middle of the desert, arrest the promoter, find a rationale unrelated to drugs. Keeping an unsafe, for example, I’m the guy who authored the crack house legislation, we can use the crack house legislation to tear down these buildings. So I think we better send a message out to local officials here, to the mayors, the governors and everybody else, that if you were able to, theoretically, eliminate the circumstances and the places under which raves took place, and/or in addition to which policed those which on their face are legitimate, you would cut into this in an incredible way, more than if we gave you 500 more DEA agents.
Nima: Obviously, there’s a lot going on here.
Zach Siegel: What did raves do to you, Joe? Like, you just hate music, man.
Nima: Not all music, right? So Zach, can we talk about this for a second, the fact that there’s such a through line I feel like from jazz being the freaky new thing where people are smoking pot and then doing heroin, and then it gets to the new kind of music is the scary thing. But for rock music no one’s going to shut down Red Rocks because people are getting high and certainly some people are ODing. There were medical tents at Woodstock, for good reason, you know what I mean? Those aren’t going to get shut down, but raves are gonna get shut down. Can you talk to us about how, so the RAVE Act of 2002 wound up actually not being passed. But then it was reintroduced and co-sponsored, again by Biden as the 2003, Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, and it passed basically as a rider within the PROTECT Act in April 2003. But that is also I think, still kind of known as the RAVE Act, right? Because it kind of got through.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, it’s just called the RAVE Act, because it’s such a better name.
Adam: Yeah, and to be clear, one of the other shows that was paid, there’s lots of them, one of the other shows was $200,000 for 7th Heaven, and 7th Heaven’s drug episode, the year that they received their very special drug episode, the year they received that payment by the White House, is now an infamous episode because it’s so incredibly stupid. We’re not going to show a clip from it, but there was an article in The Daily Beast about the sort of infamous 7th Heaven marijuana show, you can Google it, and you read the article and sort of making fun of it, people on Twitter make fun of it a lot, but nobody mentions that it was a federally funded commercial. That’s why it’s so stupid. Many of the reasons why these things are so ham-fisted is because the lines are very possibly, and I think probably very likely, written by actual White House drugs staff, these aren’t like organic creative creations of some artists writing in a log cabin in Wisconsin sort of expressing themselves. There’s tremendous material forces, and in this case, direct forces that give us this ham-fisted bullshit, especially on television in the ’90s when they just said, fuck it, let’s just pay him to do it.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, there really is a throughline here. Zach, can you talk to us just briefly about how the RAVE Act made raves actually less safe. We kind of talked about how the promoters got scared about their own implication, but what were some of the consequences of that?
Zach Siegel: Yeah, there’s actually just such a fascinating kind of cultural history about the rave culture and the kind of crackdown on the whole underground community. But yeah, when you criminalize the sale of water, it’s really, I mean, people would have to go into a bathroom and try to get under the faucet into the sink just to be hydrated and so drugs like MDMA, they’re not super dangerous if you take it in the right dose, in a proper environment, it could be at a club, it could be at a rave, that’s still fine, and the likelihood of something wrong happening is very slim, if you have these kind of basic essentials. And then also, what was coming from the underground kind of community was drug checking services, there would be reagent testing, you would take off a little chunk of your MDMA pill, whatever it was, and there was a little tent, and they would drop a reagent test on it and based on the color it would turn, that’s how you could tell, is this safe? Is this pure? What’s this going to be like? And in a country where you can’t even have water at a rave, drug checking is absolutely out of the question. So all these ways to actually solve the problem by making the conditions safer are criminalized, and Biden’s solution was to bulldoze the remnants of industrial America, break these warehouses down where the raves were happening.
Adam: That’s why it sort of partially seems like a real-estate developer kind of handout too. I wouldn’t be surprised at all because I mean, one of the last things Clinton passed in 2000, when we talked about the charter schools, Episode 1, was a huge tax subsidy to real-estate development if they funded charter schools.
So anyway, so next, we want to talk about what again, I think is probably the most consequentially bad trope, which we’ve seen time and time again, New Jack City, we’ve seen in several TV shows, we see it in Law and Order about 800 times, which is this idea that the thing that motivates people to get better and recover is the threat of prison and jail.
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Adam: Which is, I think, if I polled 100 people 70 percent would say, ‘Yeah, of course,’ right? I think it’s something again, that sort of planted it as a worm in our brain and we’re going to show a clip from the movie 28 Days, which is about recovery and Vicodin abuse, and the character is just totally reluctant to do anything, totally reluctant to change, in total denial until she’s threatened with several months in jail, at which point, she decides to get serious about her recovery.
Nima: That’s right. This is Sandra Bullock from the year 2000, the movie 28 Days.
[Begin 28 Days Clips]
Gwen: So what’s the deal? I’m out?
Cornell: Well, it’ll take me a day to arrange your transfer. I have to make some calls.
Gwen: I know where I want to go. There is this place in the city that has —
Cornell: I’m not referring you to a treatment facility.
Gwen: I get to go home.
Gwen: Oh, where am I going then?
Cornell: Your sentence was for 28 days of rehab or jail time.
Gwen: Oh, you don’t honestly think I’m going to jail do you?
Cornell: No, for driving drunk, crashing into a house, knocking over a lawn jockey that could have been a four year old child.
Gwen: Yeah, but it wasn’t. It was a four year old lawn jockey.
Cornell: Hey, look, it’s fine. This is all the big joke to you but in here we have rules and I warned you about them. Have your bags packed by tomorrow morning.
Gwen: No, I’m not because I don’t belong in jail. I don’t even belong in here. Yeah, yeah, I know I drink a lot, I know I do because I’m a writer and that’s what I do: drink.
Cornell: Cornell Shell for Clancy, please.
Gwen: I’m not like those people out there. I can control myself.
Cornell: No. I’ll hold.
Gwen: I can if I, if I wanted to I could if that’s what I wanted. I could. I can. I can. Forget that Mr. Rogers you 12 steppin’ geek, you know I mean, what do you know about me? Nothing. You don’t know a goddamn thing about me you know that.
Group: (Singing) Always tomorrow. Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on — (chanting) better together, no drugs — grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Gwen: Excuse me. You know, your carpet is filthy and I only bring that up because, you know, carpet grits are responsible for a lot of major health problems and that’s the last thing you need around here is major health problems. Hey, listen about that jail thing, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t go and not because I don’t want to go, but, God my hands keep doing that, its not normal, but there’s something wrong with my hands, well, with me, because what kind of person just jumps out, what kind of person jumps out of a window, you know, because she can’t sit still and be alone, you know, in a room. A person should be able to just be alone, right? You know, human beings should be able to just breathe. I can’t breathe and I feel that, I think, I know, I think I know that if I go to jail like this, you know, I’ll die and I don’t want to die.
[End 28 Days Clips]
Adam: And so he forgives her and lets her back in the program. So this is again, why is this not really correct? Why is the threat of jail which again, still informs our understanding of the criminal justice system, jail or rehab, get better or go to jail? Why is that bad?
Zach Siegel: So, in the kind of the mainstream now, addiction is called the brain disease, and yet the prescribed course of treatments are punitive and coercive, and largely unscientific and ineffective. Like I said moments ago, addiction, substance use disorder, clinically defined by psychiatrists, by doctors, whoever, as compulsive use, a compulsion, something you can’t really control, get ahold of, a compulsion that persists despite negative consequences. And so why would jail, yet another consequence, affect change in her? And what I always kind of get back to when someone is forced into a treatment setting that they’re not responding to, it’s always their fault. It’s blame the patient, blame the victim, whatever. There’s no self reflection about what are we doing wrong that isn’t reaching you. It’s always get with the program or get the fuck out and go to jail.
Adam: Right. You have tremendous incentive to basically fake it.
Zach Siegel: Exactly, and people often just fake it to look good for a judge and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Adam: There’s no empirical basis for any of this really, correct?
Zach Siegel: No, look at that treatment center. It looked like a summer camp for adults. They’re holding hands and singing songs at a lake house that looks kind of like a hospital or something. Why do we send people with a potentially lethal health condition to a place like that?
Adam: To a lake house?
Zach Siegel: It reminds me of tuberculosis back in the day. Where like, head west, go get some sun like that will fix it.
Adam: To be fair, that’s all we had. They were like, ‘We got nothing, man.’
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Adam: I’m still using leeches. I don’t know, go out west, get some sun.
Zach Siegel: Florida and California are these kind of rehab havens, these kind of meccas where people from all over the country, and even the world, get flown and sent to and they’re on the beach, they’re at a Malibu ranch and they’re petting horses, they’re doing basically a bunch of daycare camp activities, and they call it addiction treatment and they bill insurance companies thousands of dollars per day for this treatment.
Nima: I’m curious, Zach, films like Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, how do those kind of all build up into the kind of Hillbilly Elegy trope?
Zach Siegel: Well, what’s interesting, and I sort of wrote about this, I went on a tear during the pandemic, just watching movies and it wound up turning into some articles and essays and stuff I wrote and I could see the kind of trajectory of film about heroin and opioids, and what’s really interesting is that in Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting, you have the seedy underworld and the main characters are the actual heroin users, you have Leonardo DiCaprio and Ewan McGregor and, and there’s a lot of action and dynamic and interesting stuff, and, you know, Basketball Diaries isn’t so much about treatment as it is about the life of a heroin user in New York in this moment in time and in Trainspotting, you know, they they talk a bit about methadone, but it’s sort of denigrated as just just another high you’re chasing and not an effective treatment. And I think what’s interesting is that over time, the narratives in film about heroin and opioids in the midst of the overdose crisis that the country is in, they really decenter the user, it’s not about the drug user really anymore, it’s about how the drug user affects their loved ones in the family. So the main character in all the modern-day opioid dramas, it’s either a terrified mother, a terrified father, a struggling sister or brother trying to help their sibling, that’s really the dynamic, the dramatic element is always the relationship now that decenters the user and kind of treats them like a selfish, egotistical, manipulative child who just needs to grow up.
Adam: I want to talk about this, because this is a common trope in policy discussions as well. We talked about this when we did The Appeal podcast two and a half years ago. Things like suboxone and other kind of, explain to the listeners what that is, and how that’s become politicized as a kind of, basically the government’s handing out heroin to people, “enabling,” very much the enabling rhetoric, and one of the things, and again, we want to be clear here, we understand that from a narrative perspective, a character having an arc from degenerate drug addict to revelation, Paul to Damascus, find Jesus, arc up.
Zach Siegel: Spiritual enlightenment.
Adam: Spiritual enlightenment, cut to them, you know, cutting wood in the woods, you know, sort of with their family drinking seltzer and that is more dramatic than sort of where the science has led us, which is harm reduction, controlled environments.
Nima: The boredom of withdrawal.
Adam: The boredom of withdrawal, maybe people age out, God forbid you just age out.
Zach Siegel: Yeah.
Adam: This doesn’t film well, this is not very dramatic, it’s mostly fucking boring and it doesn’t really have this sense that you’ve gone from rock bottom to the top. It’s more like you kind of level out, you age out.
Zach Siegel: It’s an organic progression, you’re just living your life.
Adam: Right and you change your habits and sort of maybe, again, some people even micro-use.
Zach Siegel: Right.
Adam: You definitely don’t want that, it sort of offends our sense of binary, right?
Zach Siegel: Where the only socially acceptable form of recovery is pure abstinence. You’re a teetotaller now, you don’t, well but you can smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and chug coffee all day.
Zach Siegel: Obviously, totally normal, totally cool, so long as you’re not doing other drugs. And so yeah, there’s a lot there, and I really think that, at least like when I’m talking about medications, at least for opioid addiction, it’s a really good prognosis. I would rather be diagnosed with a heroin addiction than pancreatic cancer or something. With heroin addiction we have super effective medications that reduce the mortality rate, all cause mortality, not just mortality from heroin, but mortality from all things in life by over 50 percent. These drugs in any other context would be considered miracles and they would be widely prescribed and they’re not right now.
Adam: But they’re not. Tell us about that. This is ‘enabling’ rhetoric again which actually forms policy.
Zach Siegel: Right, back to enabling like, so methadone and buprenorphine, both of these drugs that treat opioid addiction are themselves opioids and the way that works is when you’re using a, so we all have endogenous opioid systems. Basically, our own bodies produce endorphin and that’s Latin for “morphine within,” we produce natural painkillers, neuro chemicals that kill pain. So when we stub our toe, endorphin releases, and our brain gets a signal, okay, time for the pain to cool down, and so over time when you introduce exogenous opioids into your system, aka heroin or oxycodone whatever, your body stops producing it’s natural opioid. So your system is thrown off, you’re not quite right. And so what happens is introducing a safe, regulated, relatively mild opioid that lasts for a long time, it’s like spraying WD-40 on a creaky door, it just lubricates the system, satiates the craving and you can just basically take these drugs, and live your life, and it’s not dramatic, it’s not sexy. It’s just going to a doctor and picking up your pills. You can just live your life totally normal. No one would ever know if you were on methadone or suboxone.
Adam: Because, you know, ultimately, again, I think without being to film school-ish about it, I do think that this Christ narrative of redemption, of falling and having to sacrifice and then resurrecting, it’s romantic, and it’s very, you know, I like it, you know, again, as a repressed Protestant, I sort of can understand why it’s appealing, and it’s much of what informed our general culture of recovery, and I do think it’s a feedback loop with our general sort of understanding of a kind of an Aristotelian three act structure, right? You have to be rock bottom at the end of the second act and then you rise above, blah, blah. Now in fairness to AA they don’t say you’re ever fully recovered, it’s a lifelong process, I want to be fair there. The third act kind of goes on forever, kind of like Bad Boys II, it just sort of keeps going.
Nima: (Laughs.) The end of the last Lord of the Rings movie.
Adam: That weird Laverne & Shirley bit where they’re exterminators at the end? What was that about?
Adam: And that’s just not the reality of how it works, and that’s boring, and maybe, you know, we don’t like to make media criticism, it’s always just about the clicks, but this is sort of an example of it is kind of about the clicks. It’s just not narratively interesting to show the reality of recovery.
Zach Siegel: Yeah and that loop you’re talking about, it’s what your show, it’s like the thesis of media criticism on your show, which is that we watch and learn and then become.
Adam: We internalize.
Zach Siegel: Right, we internalize. So now, everybody thinks that when they have a loved one who’s addicted, oh, they better be shipped off to a ranch in Malibu and pet horses because that’s what you do.
Adam: Yeah. That’s the trope. That’s what you do. I saw that in that fucking Sandra Bullock movie.
Zach Siegel: Yes.
Zach Siegel: And 28 Days, where did 28 Days come from? Why 28 days? Why 30 days, it’s what insurance companies will pay for — maybe.
Adam: I thought it was the Pentecost.
Nima: Well, Zach, before we let you go, this has been so great, tell us a little bit about your work at the Health and Justice Action Lab, and of course, your own podcast Narcotica.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, so I’m a writer, I do a lot of journalism and coverage of the overdose crisis that we’re in and what I do for the Action Lab, so it’s a bunch of kind of attorneys and kind of activist lawyers and they intervene in places like, you know, Scott County, Indiana, or Atlantic City, New Jersey or Orange County, California, where local governments have a lot of power to just shut down harm reduction programs and so on fancy legal letterhead, they, you know, write these letters to local commissioners, to city councilors and try to do local activism and legal work to protect these programs that are preventing HIV, preventing hepatitis, getting people services, and these things are a lifeline to people who use drugs, and they’re built on such shoddy legal infrastructure. They’re just so easy for some angry city councilor trying to stoke whatever resentments are floating there to just shut down and so in the midst of massive overdose deaths, and in the midst of rising HIV cases in places like West Virginia, where they’re also restricting harm reduction programs, I like to go into these places and learn what’s happening and I try to write about it or the Lab at Northeastern University in the law department, they try to intervene, like nobody gives a shit about this stuff.
Adam: It’s not sexy. What you’re doing is not sexy. We need moral narratives.
Zach Siegel: Yeah. We need a huge pot of money for lawyers who care about drug users or writers who want just the public to understand what’s going on, you know, it’s just important stuff and, and that’s like a lot of what I’m doing these days.
Adam: And he also wrote about this, specifically film, in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. The headline is: “Hollywood Has a New Way to Dramatize Addiction,” which discusses the things you discuss on the show, indeed, the article, normally in the show we will tell you The New York Times is a horrible bourgeois rag that you should never read, but when he writes for it, then it’s somehow cool and leftist and edgy. Otherwise, don’t do it. I’m kidding.
Zach Siegel: I can sneak in my subversive sewer socialism.
Adam: That’s right. But anyway, this discusses many of the same themes, you can read that there and elsewhere. They can follow you on Twitter @ZachWritesStuff.
Nima: That’s right. So of course we’ve been joined in person — at least if you’re Adam in Chicago — by friend of the show, Zach Siegel, Journalism Fellow at Northeastern University’s Health and Justice Action Lab and co-host of Narcotica, a podcast about drugs informed by science policy and the lives of real drug users. Zach, thanks so much again for joining us on Citations Needed.
Zach Siegel: Yeah, this was a blast, lots of fun. Thanks, everyone, for watching us.
Nima: Awesome, and that, Adam, I believe, will do it for this very first virtual live show.
Adam: That was great.
Nima: Thank all of you for listening. Thank you again for supporting the show. Of course you can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you are not already a supporter of the show, please do consider it at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. Thank you, everyone, for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, for joining us. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was recorded live on June 17, 2021 and released on Wednesday, July 7, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.