On a sunny day in 1989 when I was just 14, I heard Jane’s Addiction for the first time.
I was at my friend Nate’s house. As I sat on his bedroom’s itchy tan carpet, near the waterbed with the imitation leather rim, we watched their debut record spin. It was a live recording, and like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, we’d inherited it from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.
The album was recorded at a club called The Roxy, on the Sunset Strip. As a concert recording, some fans called it “the live album.” We called it “Triple X,” after the indie label that released it. Unlike other live records where applause fades in before the music starts, Triple X launched right in with no introduction: fast drums, soloing guitar, and a high-pitched banshee singer howling cryptic lyrics that went way over my 14-year-old head: “Oh, mama lick on me / I’m as tasty as a red plum / Baby thumb / Wanna make you love.” The song was called “Trip Away.” I had no idea what tripping was, but the music slayed me.
After a blazing crescendo, the audience clapped, seconds passed, and a slow bass line played a new rumbling melody. The drummer pounded a single beat over it: boom. Then two more ─ boom boom ─ building tension. The guitarist slid his pick down the guitar strings, smearing a wicked echo across the rhythm, then the banshee yelled “Goddamn!” and broke into “Whores.” “I don’t want much man, give a little / I’m gonna take my chances if I get ’em. Yeah!”
To a middle class kid in Phoenix, Arizona, this music had a primal abandon that I hadn’t yet encountered, but whose wildness attracted me.
Julie Rinaldi, left, and Lynn Locascio, right, both of Tampa, Fla., react as names are read of people who have died from OxyContin abuse. Rinaldi's daughter, Sarah, died at 17 from taking OxyContin. (AP Photo//Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)
The Sackler family funds top-tier museums (the Met, the Tate, the Smithsonian), universities (Princeton, Cambridge), and scientific research institutes (the Mayo Clinic, the National Academy of Sciences). Where does their cash come from? Writing in Esquire, Christopher Glazek tells us: pharmaceuticals — these days, largely OxyContin, which generates over a billion dollars in sales each year on the back of a campaign built on misleading both doctors and the public about its addictive potential. Over 200,000 people have now died of OxyContin overdoses, and many more from heroin after first becoming addicted to opioids via Oxy.
The Sacklers have experience turning an addictive drug into a household name. In the 1960s, family patriarch Arthur Sackler did it with benzodiazepene:
In the 1960s, Arthur was contracted by Roche to develop an advertising strategy for a new antianxiety medication called Valium. This posed a challenge, because the effects of the medication were nearly indistinguishable from those of Librium, another Roche tranquilizer that was already on the market. Arthur differentiated Valium by audaciously inflating its range of indications. Whereas Librium was sold as a treatment for garden- variety anxiety, Valium was positioned as an elixir for a problem Arthur christened “psychic tension.” According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.
Later, the company would do the something similar with OxyContin and pain, when it “rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.”
Guns seized in the arrest of an alleged member Los Zetas in 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
In March 2011, gunmen from the Zetas drug cartel descended on the small town of Allende, an hour from the US border, killing dozens, possibly hundreds of people — many of whom had no connection to the cartel — and destroying their homes and businesses. Seven years later, the town still has more questions than answers.
Poor management of confidential information about cartel leaders Miguel Ángel and Omar Treviño had caused a retaliation against their perceived informants that was swift and severe. Allende is a town so thoroughly infiltrated by the powerful cartel, there was little leadership or resistance to the violence. For ProPublica, Ginger Thompson interviews to victims’ families, the informers, and DEA agents in an important, difficult to read investigation.
Officers under my command responded to reports of a fire at one of the Garza ranches. We’re talking about less than three kilometers away from Allende. It appeared that the Garza family was having some kind of gathering. Among the first responders was a group of firefighters with a backup engine. They noticed there were certain people connected to criminal organizations, who told them, in vulgar terms and at gunpoint, to withdraw. They said there were going to be numerous incidents. We were going to get numerous emergency calls about gunshots, fires and things like that. They told us we were not authorized to respond.
In my capacity as fire chief, what I did was to advise my boss, who in this case was the mayor. I told him that we were facing an impossible situation and that the only thing we could do was to stand down, out of fear of the threats we faced. There were too many armed men. We were afraid for our lives. We couldn’t fight bullets with water.
With Jeff Sessions banging the drum to bring back the war on drugs, access to marijuana — even for medical use — seems more and more remote for red state users. At BuzzFeed, Alyson Martin meets activists who take a faith-based approach to ending marijuana prohibition.
Decker, 49, tells anyone in Texas who will listen why cannabis is, in fact, a permitted therapy for Christians — not a sin. She hopes her openness will help generate support for medical cannabis among state lawmakers, and in April she submitted passionate testimony in hopes of swaying them. She described being rushed to the ER, “gasping for air” on New Year’s Day in 2014, when her COPD was first diagnosed, and the blur of medications and treatments she’s endured since then. “I live 80 miles from a legal state line,” Decker wrote, referring to New Mexico, where medical cannabis is permitted. She questioned why such treatment should be off-limits to her, “just because I choose to live and work in Texas, where I was born?”
Genesis 1:29, which Decker formed in 2010, is named after a Bible verse that’s oft-repeated by Christians in favor of medical marijuana: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” To Decker, a nondenominational Christian who follows the Bible’s verses in a literal way, it means that cannabis is “meant to be eaten, whether in oil, whether in an edible,” she said.
Obviously, not everyone in Texas is receptive to Decker’s interpretation of the Bible — none of the laws covering medical or recreational cannabis were likely to pass before the legislative session ends in late May.
“People in the Bible Belt say, ‘You’re using the Bible to promote drugs,’” she said, drawing out the word “drugs” for emphasis. Decker disagrees. “We’re using the Bible to promote what God gave us. We say that God made the perfect medicine. Man is the one that made it illegal.”
In this epic, seven-part feature from the Dallas Morning News, Scott Farwell tells the story of Carol Blevins, a heroin addict and “Aryan Princess featherwood” (property of a gang member) who became the FBI’s most important confidential informant during a massive, six-year investigation into the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas — an organized crime syndicate responsible for over 100 murders and a huge drug trade. Blevins’ keen eye for detail helped take down 13 members of the gang. Not only does she suffer post-traumatic stress from her undercover work, the gang has signaled the “green light” on her assassination in a bid for revenge.
She lived with the ABT, gathering information the Cold War way – by sleuthing, connecting dots, memorizing detail.
Her spy work offered broad views (the ABT’s strategy for moving meth with Mexican cartels) and small insights (serial numbers on stolen guns).
In covert text messages, she pre-empted murders and interrupted robberies. She led police to drug drop houses, snapped photos connecting criminals to unsolved crimes, and prepped police when it came time to arrest men predisposed to violence.
Carol’s work sealed 13 convictions, contributed key information to at least 16 others, and juiced the careers of her government handlers.
The feds use most spies like matches – to strike fast, burn hot and flame out. Others fill disposable roles in sting operations, as drug buyers or middlemen who fence stolen property.
But agents say the most valuable CIs augur deep inside, where they learn to live in another skin, to lie and believe the lie, to infiltrate silently and investigate invisibly – like a colorless gas filling an empty vessel.
Carol was like that. She would do or say or risk anything to gain favor with the feds.
Then they cut her loose.
Medical records suggest Carol suffers from a range of mental illnesses — bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — as a result of her work as a confidential informant.
A drug like fentanyl doesn’t inject your body with new feelings; it borrows from the ones you already have. When the high starts to wear off, the positive sensations retreat and the negative ones become amplified. And addicts have no shortage of negative emotions. A dark cloud descends upon your brain. You become scared, anxious, agitated. The warmth rolls away and leaves you in cold sweats, shivering. Self-loathing kicks in, followed by guilt, fear, sadness, paranoia. Coming down off that first rush, my body began to ache. All I could focus on was escaping those feelings as quickly as possible, and the only solution was to smoke again. And again—each iteration sinking me deeper into dependency. From that day on, I smoked fentanyl at least six times a day and sometimes as many as 15 times.
The scariest part was that, as a doctor, I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I didn’t care.
In the familiar eschatology of addiction memoirs—David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun,” say, or Bill Clegg’s “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man”—an ambitious protagonist is bested by the wearying force of substances, only to later conquer his dependency and return, relatively unscathed, to the more wholesome business of achievement and success. But both “You’ll Never Eat Lunch” and “How to Murder Your Life” are remarkably honest in foregrounding the invidious parallelism of their subjects’ multifarious drives. It turns out that, for some addicts, drug use doesn’t just subvert ambition—it also mimics it. For Phillips, the deal-making stops, but the same desires that fuelled her career trajectory continue to animate her addiction. “Smoking freebase has pretty much been my job for the past year,” she writes of a particularly extreme period. And even after she quits cocaine, she begins exercising compulsively so as not to become a “fat tub of goo.” “Had she figured out a new and exciting addiction?” she wonders after injuring herself working out, describing the pain in a swollen ankle as “little jolts all along the way . . . painumb, painumb, painumb,” beating rhythmically like so many ticks on a never-ending workday clock.
Most of the time my mom and I are a secret team, keeping secrets from my dad. She tells me we’re going to take the city bus because her car is getting fixed and this sounds like a great adventure. We take the bus to her friend’s house in Providence and she leaves me there in the living room, where I watch television until the room begins to darken.
I am good at keeping secrets. I am good at telling lies. I’m so good that years later, when I’m an adult trying to find out more about my mother’s life and death, I’ll have trouble with my own memories: Did I know we were on the bus buying drugs? Did I understand the danger we were in? Did I really believe we were in this together?
Another time, Mom drives me in Grandma’s car to a small house with long steps leading up to the front door from the street. She takes the keys from the ignition and tells me to wait in the car. She leans over and pats the space beneath the dashboard, telling me to get down there and stay until she comes back. “I’ll lock the doors,” she says.
In the real world, my mom’s body will remain off the side of the highway, undiscovered for five months.
Nearly everyone in Zaine’s life had been anxiously monitoring that line for the past year and a half, ever since both of his parents died of heroin overdoses in April 2015. His parents had become two of the record 33,091 people to die of opioid overdoses that year in a national crisis that has been worst of all in rural West Virginia, where health officials estimate that overdose rates are now eight to 10 times higher than the national average. Middle-aged white men in this part of the country have lost a full year of life expectancy during the past two decades. Middle-aged white women have lost more than two years. The opiate epidemic has essentially wiped out an entire generation of health advances, and now West Virginia has begun to focus more of its resources on prevention and preservation among the next generation entering into the void.
These children are sometimes referred to by health officials here as opiate orphans, and three of the most recent ones live in a small house in South Charleston: Zoie, 10, who believed that her parents had died in their sleep; Arianna, 13, who was just starting to wear her mother’s old makeup; and Zaine, 17, who had been the one to discover his parents that morning on their bedroom floor, and whose grades had begun to drop ever since.
Madie, 53, had retired from her maintenance job at the public schools and moved into the house to help take care of the children after the overdoses. “Mah-maw,” they called her, and she told salty jokes, cooked their breakfast and slept in Zoie’s bedroom when she had nightmares.
But, on some nights, it was Madie who couldn’t sleep, when neither her doctor-prescribed antidepressants nor her occasional swallows of Fireball whiskey could quiet her grief or her rising anxiety. She had once struggled with addiction herself before getting clean. She had raised a daughter who had become an addict. Now she was responsible for three more children in a place where that same disease had officially been classified as a “widespread, progressive and fatal epidemic.”