The Marijuana Debate

An astonishing number — at least to me — of men and women we encounter in our work are long time, heavy users of marijuana. Some are in jail because of it, which prompts bitter complaints about Pennsylvania’s drug laws. I have heard more than one person say that, upon release, they intend to move to a state where recreational marijuana use is legal.

“Pot helps me relax” is the most common compliment of the drug’s beneficial effects I hear. More than one person has praised marijuana as a kind of substitute for heroin, helping them not return to that powerfully addictive substance…at least for a while. I have yet to hear anyone suggest marijuana has a single negative side-effect.

From the reading I have done, I’m of the opinion that medical research on marijuana has not yet produced conclusive and persuasive evidence that pot is harmful enough that it should be considered a public health menace as serious, say, as cigarettes. Yes, it does negatively affect brain development in adolescents. Yes, there does seem, at least for some users, to be a connection to violence. Yes, in some people, there are interesting potential links between long time marijuana use and the onset of schizophrenia. Yes, for some it could be a gateway drug to more addictive substances.

From time to time I have attempted to offer these research insights as a counter to arguments that pot is a really beneficial drug and ought, therefore, to be legal. The problem, of course, is in the word “some.” Not all pot users become violence or develop schizophrenia or go on to use hard drugs.

No one, of course, believes they are ever likely to be numbered among the “some.”

So marijuana use is not the same thing as a fully loaded revolver that is guaranteed to kill you if you point it at your head and pull the trigger. It’s a revolver with, at most, just one bullet in it. For “some” it probably has no bullets in it.

I’d like to see marijuana decriminalized but not made legal. That’s probably a distinction without a difference. But something tells me need a lot more clarity and certainty before Pennsylvania makes marijuana legal.

Hampton Morgan

A Terrifying Enemy

In an earlier post, I mentioned a new book I had just become aware of — “Dopesick.” Embedded in that blog post is a video in which PBS NewsHour host, Judy Woodruff, interviewed the author, Beth Macy, a reporter for the Roanoke Times. I have only recently found time to begin reading the book.

“Dopesick” explores the origins and spread of the opioid epidemic from the extreme southwestern corner of Virginia all the way to the western suburbs of Washington D.C. It is a distance covering hundreds of miles traversed by I-81.

Macy introduces readers to the heartbreaking stories of alarmed physicians and community leaders, anguished mothers and fathers, and naive law enforcement officials who became first-hand witnesses of the carnage wrought by opioid addiction. From communities along the borders of West Virginia and Kentucky, reeling from the job losses caused by shuttered factories and closed coal mines, to the solidly middle class suburbs of Roanoke, Macy chronicles the tsunamis of opioid prescriptions inundating communities where no one had any idea just how addicting these drugs were. Until it was too late.

Purdue Pharma, everyone’s opioid epidemic whipping boy, fares badly in Macy’s story. And not without cause. Purdue cared far too much about its profits to exercise the care and responsibility it should have when its role in the epidemic of opioid addiction was plain for everyone to see. Plain, that is, for everyone except Purdue’s executives and lawyers.

Victims are everywhere in “Dopesick.” Macy introduces us to the lives of high- schoolers cut short by overdose death as well as their stunned and grieving parents, some of whom deserve medals for their courageous and effective campaign to hold Purdue Pharma accountable.

Macy also introduces us to the dealers who, sensing an expanding market, infiltrated some of the same communities — where opioid pills had already laid the groundwork for widespread addiction — to sell heroin to the addicted who no longer had access to the pills and discovered that heroin was a lot cheaper.

As I began Beth Macy’s book, I was not a newcomer to the existence or contours of the opioid epidemic. I know men and women whose lives have been ravaged by opioid addiction. I know men and women who are serving state prison sentences for selling heroin. I knew three men who died of heroin overdoses in the past 18 months. And I know a grieving mother and father of one of those men.

But upon reaching the halfway point in “Dopesick,” I felt something I had not experienced before. Maybe it was partly the result of looking at the body of a 26-year old man, with all the promise of life before him, but now dead from an overdose, laying in a casket during the family visitation hour at the funeral home a week ago. I felt terrified. Terrified of the awesome power of heroin to enslave and to destroy.

A few years ago, a man from the county just south of us shot two state police officers one night as they were coming off their shift. One of them died. The assassin fled into the depths of the Delaware State Forest, where he outwitted a massive manhunt for about three weeks. Finally he was apprehended and held in the county jail where we do some of our work. At trial, well more than a year later, he was convicted and sentenced to death. The law enforcement and justice system spared no expense in capturing this man and convicting him for his crime. As they should have.

We surely would have seen an even more massive effort to find and stop this man if he had gone on a more widespread shooting spree, coming out of the forest every night to take another life, and then retreating back into the shadows to await his next opportunity. What if he killed two or three dozen other citizens in our county? We would be terrified, staying inside and away from windows lest we become his next victim. And we would want him captured. Yesterday!

Perhaps this is an inaccurate or inept comparison, but this is how I am beginning to see the terrifying power of heroin and the victims it has claimed in the past year within 20 miles of where I live. I often feel we are still sleep-walking in the midst of a mortal danger that stalks victims from every community, every church and every socio-economic level of society.

Yes, I felt terrified today.

Not finished yet with the book, I don’t know if Ms. Macy will give me reason to shake off the terror I feel. My gut tells me the terror is justified and that we are a very long way from being able to breathe more easily.

Hampton Morgan




Recovery is More Likely Than We Think

I worked in the business office at New Hope Manor for several years. Nick Roes, who at the time was the executive director of this women’s residential substance abuse recovery center in Sullivan County NY, told me something about addiction and recovery I have never forgotten.

Nick said that the majority of people who become addicted to alcohol or drugs do eventually recover. He said something else that stuck with me: rehab can play a helpful part for some people, but that most recover without formal rehab.

When I asked him about how this can be (after all, wasn’t it his job to promote rehab?) he replied that people eventually figure out what they have to do to stay clean. In other words it is for most a process of trial and error. What works for one person might not work so well for another person. People who find the motivation to overcome their addictions discover what works for them and they learn to stick with it.

The conversation with Nick came back to mind a few days ago when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times a friend in North Carolina sent me. “Addiction Doesn’t Always Last a Lifetime” is the title. The writer, Maia Szalavitz, is probably most famous for her book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. But she has also written about addiction, especially in another of her books, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.

In her Times opinion piece, Szalavitz offers stories of six recovering addicts, each who pursued a different path to recovery. Some included stints in rehab, but others found the path forward through meaningful work, relationships, spirituality and medication assisted treatment.

The stories were all encouraging. Szalavitz’s piece can be found here.

Hampton Morgan