Monday, October 19, 2009

Ronnie's Legacy

It was Ronald Reagan's fault I got into nursing.  In more ways than one.  He closed all the mental hospitals without providing an alternative and suddenly there was a desperate need for community mental health care.  I was newly divorced and needed to support my five children and they grabbed me right up and sent me to nursing school.  I wanted to be a marine biologist, or even an art therapist, but nursing was it.  It was faster, though that time in school seemed forever, with 11 and 12 hour days when we had classroom work as well as full shift clinicals.  Sometimes I was gone from 6:30 AM until 11 at night, and then there was studying to do.  How we survived is another story altogether.  (300 people applied for the class.  31 were selected.  Eleven of us graduated and we all passed state boards.)

My first job was at the Hunter's Point Methadone Clinic near Candlestick Park.  My only preparation for this job was basic psych nursing training and life experience.  As an artist married to a jazz musician, I had lived in the general milieu.  As one of my patients put it when she explained why she felt safe confiding in me, "You were in the life."  Though I was never a drug user, I had lived among people who were.  After I had worked there for a few months, another methadone clinic job opened up at San Francisco General's Ward 92 and I transferred over. 

We got a lot of material from the government and when things were slow, I read it.  We had a mountain of pamphlets printed on newsprint covering the entire history of the drug wars and the cultural changes that had fed into them.  I was amazed at what the government taught me.

Opiates were dirt cheap and over-the-counter legal until the early 20th century, and in fact doctors often transferred alcoholic patients to opium because they could hold down a job on opiates where this was impossible when they were drunk.  There were few if any drug crimes.  The Harrison Narcotics act of 1914 put a tax on them and from there on it went downhill.  Like prohibition, outlawing drugs created drug outlaws. More than half the people in our prisons today are there either on drug related issues or for crimes committed to get money for drugs.  Of course with the added glamor of being illegal, drug use went up.  Humans have no sense a lot of the time.

During the Hippie era, the drugs of choice were hallucinogenic -- pot and acid, and occasionally organic substances like amanita mushrooms, peyote and morning glory seeds.  These caused an introspective mystical or spiritual high and did not produce any collateral crime the way opiates do.  They were not addicting, and though really unsafe for people with mental health issues, they did relatively little damage.  No AIDS.  No hepatitis C.  No endocarditis epidemics.  No deaths from overdoses.  Peace, love and joy pretty much prevailed.  Healthy organic living, what we call Green Living today.  The Haight Ashbury was a great place to live and raise kids in those days.  People smiled a lot.  There was a terrific sense of community.  I miss the Haight the way it was in those Summer of Love days.  I will never forget the feel of warm sunshine in the meadows of Golden Gate park with my family around me and Gracie Slick belting out White Rabbit.  Magical times.  

Ronald Reagan was governor of California then and his drug people decided to get rid of the marijuana, and maybe those pesky Hippies would go, too.  We can argue about motivation, and there are some very good conspiracy theories out there which, according to the government literature I read, are pretty much true... They managed to close the Mexican border as tight as a drum.  (Take that, Lou Dobbs!)  Imports dried up.  There was a serious pot drought.  Now remember, the government line was that marijuana was a "gateway drug" (by those standards, so is milk) and was addicting and all manner of other things the people using it knew not to be true, so when they heard heroin was a bad drug, they did not believe a word of it.  The marijuana stories were so outrageously false, they believed the heroin stories must be, too, so when the pot vacuum was quickly  filled by enterprising heroin dealers, many didn't hesitate.  (where did the heroin dealers come from?!!  They were not neighborhood guys.)  Gone were the gentle hippies whispering "grassacid?"  The results were death and destruction and general horror and painful, often lifelong addiction.  We watched friends lives destroyed and young people murdered in that once-peaceful neighborhood, including a friend's 17-year-old brother who had just arrived, rosy-cheeked and innocent, from Appleton Wisconsin.  That put a permanent end to the flower children.

My boss at the time was the neighborhood merchants' president and the police/community liaison.  When Mendel wanted to get rid of the heroin dealers in front of his store, he watched very carefully until he found the supplier.  He knew the street dealer was not the problem.  He followed the supplier to his home, got his license number and address and turned them over to his good friends at the police station.  His first jolt of real political reality was when he realized they had no intention of doing anything about it.  At all.  

Heroin eats away and replaces the myelin sheath on your nerve endings, so when you stop taking it, you are in hideous pain.  Violent vomiting and diarrhea ensue.  Patients can't even stand water on their skin -- the pain is unbearable.  The worst of this lasts about 72 hours, the length of time it takes to get the drug out of your system.  Few people have the courage to go through that without help.  Methadone replaces the heroin and takes away the pain without the high.  It enables addicts to get out of the criminal part of it and they no longer need to steal to come up with drug money.  But it is even more addicting.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.

photo credit: unknown artist -- classic photo


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