Review: “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest, and a regular contributor to Points. Today she reviews a recent theatrical production that should be of interest to drug scholars. 

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 8.13.59 AMFor this dope scholar, a recent trip to Miami would not have been complete without catching the play Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy at the Colony Theatre in South Beach, which opened on March 7, 2019 and closed on April 7, 2019. Written by Billy Corben and Aurin Squire and directed by Michael Hausman, the play is based on the docudramas Cocaine Cowboys (2006) and Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin with the Godmother (2008), which chronicled the Miami Drug wars and the lives of Griselda Blanco and her assassin Jorge “Rivi” Ayala.  

The star of the play is Yancey Arias, who portrays Rivi and delves into the character showcasing aspects of Rivi not previously mentioned in the docudrama.  Arias has been in numerous shows, including Kingpin, Queen of the South, Thief, and a host of others. He is joined by an ensemble comprised of Stephen G. Anthony, Rubi Goblen, Andy Mendez, Zillah Mendoza, and Nicolas Richberg.  The actors play a host of characters that are familiar to fans of Cocaine Cowboys, Richard Smitten’s book The Godmother, and Max Mermelstein’s memoir The Man who Made it Snow.

The play, the theatre, and Miami now officially hail that the city recognizes itself as the capital of Latin America and the city that cocaine built.  The chronicling of that era in Confessions and Cocaine Cowboys by Corben and Squire have changed how Miami tells its own history.  

The play tackles heady subjects that define Miami, such as corruption, nepotism, race, drugs, and crime.  In exchanges between the sonorous Rivi and irritated Detective Vanegas, played by Mendez, the tensions between Cubans and other Latin American immigrants are displayed.  As Vanegas epically recounts how he came to the United States, he sees Rivi as an antagonist to the Cuban American heroic story. Colombians sullied the paradise that gave countless Cubans a new place to call home.  Rivi positions his life as a tale of opportunities as he pursued the American dream that shifted from Chicago to Miami, and from stealing cars to working as an assassin. He is a chameleon who readily understands power and manipulation, which is what fascinated the authors and the countless fans of Cocaine Cowboys.  

Mendoza’s roles as Kathy, Griselda Blanco and Gladys reflect the women in Rivi’s life. Kathy is Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has been the state attorney for Miami-Dade County since 1993.  Her tenure is portrayed as rife with corruption, and Rivi and the other actors regale the audience with tales of her alleged misdeeds.  Blanco is Rivi’s boss and a woman who is far more famous today than she was in the early 1980s. Blanco recruited Rivi and he became one of her many assassins. Gladys is Rivi’s wife. Rivi sees only subtle differences between Fernandez Rundle and Blanco. Both women protected their families to ensure success. Like Fernandez Rundle, Blanco was one of few women in a male-dominated field during the 1970s and 1980s. As the highest-ranking woman in the Medellín cartel, she employed violence to ensure her success until Rivi became her nemesis to save himself from the death penalty.   

The play is a great romp through a not too distant past.  The playbill and opening comments contain the following warning: “gunfire, strobe lights, strong language, violence, blood, and other Florida fuc**ry will be experienced during the performance.” Indeed, it was.  Florida of the early 1980s and its drug wars appear almost quaint criminal stories of a distant past similar to Frank Sinatra’s Man with the Golden Arm. Miami Vice, Scarface, and Cocaine Cowboys regale us with the tales of men and a few women in a different era.  That era led to the crack epidemic and devastated cities and families. That era appears to pale to the present with access to burner phones, bitcoins, internet banking, militarized policing, and the dark web.  Significantly, Corben and Squire recognize that the drug violence of the late 1970s and 1980s led to the escalation of the Drug Wars. Those ongoing wars are directly connected to the loosening of gun laws that have contributed to massacres in Florida (and the rest of the US) and that the drug violence that has criminalized low level dealers and contributed to the mass incarceration of young African Americans and Latinos.

Since the release of the first docudramas in 2006, other films and attempts to tell the story of the Miami drug wars have been made.  Catherine Zeta Jones’s Lifetime rendition of Griselda Blanco was a horrible melodrama that remains the only full-length production.  Mermestein’s biopic has yet to make it to the big screen, and neither has Rivi’s. Lawsuits and production issues have undermined a cinematic telling of these tales, though there are always options and plans.  Like Corben discovered, the future may be in live action, in a small theater in a city that cocaine cowboys and cowgirls helped to erect and expand. Yet, Confessions challenges us to consider the bigger consequences of those events almost forty years ago.  

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Big Nicotine, Part II: Addiction and the “Cult of Pharmacology”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.

Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”

But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use. Continue reading →

Donald Trump on Drugs: Election 2016, Part I

In response to Donald Trump’s sniffly debate performances over the last month-and-a-half of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Twittersphere erupted in wild speculation that the alleged billionaire had prepared with lines other than his taking points. “Notice Trump sniffling all the time. Coke user?” ventured Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, one-time presidential candidate, and, not incidentally, licensed medical doctor. Others consulted drug authorities, of a sort. Self-described cocaine “expert” Carrie Fisher told a curious fan that she “ABSOLUTEY” thought Trump appeared like a “coke head.”

Dean’s jab, relatively on par with some of Trump’s own supposed zingers, was immediately scrutinized and dismissed by commentators. But it is curious that drugs have only sporadically entered the national conversation when, in recent years, opioid overdoses – usually in combination with other substances – routinely kill about 1,000 Americans a month. Moreover, four states are voting on medical marijuana and five, including the hugely influential California, may fully legalize.

While Trump probably doesn’t toot key bumps before going onstage, it is worth considering in a serious way what a potential future commander-in-chief believes about an issue near and dear to Points readers: drug policy. What follows is an attempted breakdown of Trump’s position on the three key topics mentioned above. I say “attempted” because, like with most things, his often contradictory stance on drugs is characteristically hard to pin down.

Medical Marijuana

Sitting for an interview on the O’Reilly Factor in February, Trump displayed some surprising compassion for others after host Bill O’Reilly called medical marijuana a “ruse”: “But I know people that have serious problems and they did that, they really – it really does help them,” Trump professed.

He didn’t offer any clarifying details but said that he was “in favor of it a hundred percent.”

Of course, Trump would take no action for or against such an initiative at the federal level. “Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” he told a Reno crowd during the primaries last year.

Recreational Marijuana

Still toeing the small-federal-government line of the party that gave him its nomination, Trump similarly left recreational weed for states to decide. I think.

During a debate last summer, he opined that “[regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that.” When pressed by the moderator about states’ rights to set their own policy, he verbally shrugged: “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado – some big, big problems.” (Again, no specifics.)

Later, at the same rally he proclaimed medical a state issue, he softened his tone. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”

Notably, during the cultural hysteria of the crack epidemic, Trump supported full legalization. “We’re losing badly [bigly?] the War on Drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” When pressed about his 1990 statement last year, Trump must have misremembered. “I said it’s something that should be studied and should continue to be studied. But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now. I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something I would want to do.”

Opioid Addiction

Trump calls the problem of opioid addiction “tremendous.”

He may very well believe that his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border will stem the tide of heroin into the states, but traffickers are responding to demand cultivated domestically.

In any case, don’t expect any enlightened harm reduction rhetoric from a man who idolizes Vladimir Putin. Earlier this year, hardline Russian delegates to the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs insisted that that very term – “harm reduction” – appear nowhere in the resulting document outlining the contours of future global drug policy. Among the common treatment modalities in Russia are reportedly hypnosis, flogging, and comatose electroshock therapy. Unsurprisingly, addiction and HIV transmission through injection drug use are pressing social problems in Russia.

It remains unclear whether the experience of Trump’s own brother Freddy, who died addicted to alcohol in 1981, inspires any empathy for the plight of users. He did, however, give a second chance to at least one Miss USA accused of drug use.

I guess he’ll keep us in suspense!

Check back next week for part II of Point’s election 2016 candidate breakdown.

 

Another Shot: Will dAd5GNE “End” Cocaine Addiction?

Among Facebook friends familiar with my work, dozens of conversations have started by their linking me to relevant pieces on, for example, the racial disparities of marijuana legalization, the therapeutic application of psychedelics, and, perhaps less pressing but no less appreciated, the varieties of ways our ancestors got high.

As much as I try to stay up on my drug news, sometimes people scoop me. This most recently happened last month when I received an article with a fantastically understated title: “Groundbreaking Treatment could be the End of Cocaine Addiction.” It was certainly enough to make a skeptical drug historian smile (and chuckle at the layered humor of Yahoo Finance covering anything related to the stockbroker’s culturally purported substance-of-choice).

the-wolf-of-wall-street-dicaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort fulfilling every stereotype

Cocaine addiction is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future, but the new treatment, called a cocaine “vaccine,” offers some promise. It’s certainly groundbreaking at least. Dr. Ronald Crystal, principal investigator for currently-enrolling clinical trials at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornel Medical Center, correctly notes that, “While there are drugs like methadone designed to treat heroin, there aren’t any therapeutics available to treat cocaine addiction.” Addiction research scientists understand fairly well how our opioid receptors operate but most are perpetually vexed by cocaine’s complex neurotransmitter influence.

The vaccine, named dAd5GNE, combines parts of a common cold virus with a particle molecularly similar to cocaine, triggering an immune response against both. “Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy,” Crystal explains, “it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body.” The idea is to neutralize cocaine particles before they pass the blood-brain barrier, blunting their effects. This is a key distinction among addiction medications like methadone, which partially block opioid receptors once drugs like heroin cross over.

Crystal concedes that the process may not reliably pan out for humans. Years ago, his team observed vaccinated rats appearing less hyperactive after cocaine use than non-vaccinated rats, and the isolated antibody absorbing cocaine particles in a test tube, but scaling up is not necessarily linear. “We need to find out if the vaccine will cause enough anti-cocaine antibodies to be produced so that it works in humans, too.”

Crystal’s cautious optimism is not reflected in articles like the one my friend shared (though author Melody Hahm is considerably more measured in the main text). Once Crystal began experimenting on primates after mice, an article from The Fix invited readers to “[i]magine that cocaine addiction could be eradicated, poof, with a simple vaccine. [Crystal] now thinks his team has actually figured out a very clever trick to make that dream a reality.” A recent article in the New York Post calls the treatment a potential “saving grace” for addicts.

capitlasm-plus-dope-pamphlet

Methadone did little to alleviate the structural inequalities that contributed to drug addiction, as elaborated in this 1966 pamphlet

Poof! The drug historian continues smiling. In the early 1960s, scientists Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander began using the synthetic opioid methadone to treat heroin addiction. Soon, journalists began proclaiming the drug as the “magic bullet” solution to the nation’s growing heroin problem. (But not without reason; the uniquely favorable conditions of early methadone trials, which featured rigorous screening processes for applicants and included staggered patient cohorts in cumulative retention data, produced impressive results: anywhere from 71 to 94 percent of users ceased criminal activity, found steady employment, and/or enrolled in college.) But heroin addiction was most prevalent in poor, high-stress urban neighborhoods characterized by racial discrimination in housing and employment. Methadone didn’t alter the scene much in places short on opportunity and long on reasons to use and sell dope. For decades, critics have credited the drug with simply perpetuating social conditions that give rise to drug use in the first place.

dAd5GNE may face similar charges. It doesn’t eliminate craving for cocaine, it just reduces the drug’s effect. Research suggests cocaine must occupy at least 47 percent of a dopamine transporter to produce a characteristic high and Crystal’s vaccinated primates never reached levels above 20 percent. But committed human addicts may accidentally overdose trying to bridge the gap, assuming they stick with the vaccination booster regiment at all, while polydrug users have an easier workaround. In any case, neither the setting or consequences of cocaine use on a social or individual level will probably change much. And, like its opioid-blocking counterparts, the cocaine vaccine gets us no closer to answering questions about addiction’s natured and (or?) nurtured etiology.

However, the vaccine has one major advantage over most opioid maintenance therapies: it has virtually no addictive potential. Twelve-step adherents and other abstemious interests liken methadone maintenance to substituting one drug – read: addiction – for another. Opioid replacement drugs can induce a mild euphoria, create physical tolerance, and even be fatal at certain dosage thresholds, which, at least theoretically, are non-issues for vaccine boosters administered weeks apart.

However, this treatment is not for everyone who does cocaine. The vast majority of users enjoy it as a fun or utilitarian stimulant without adverse outcomes. Many have no desire to stop. But even for problem users hoping to quit, the cocaine vaccine may go the way of methadone, Antabuse, and nicotine patches: magic bullets for some, stopgaps for others, nothing for most. (Assuming, of course, that trials confirm dAd5GNE is viable for human use.) But for anyone who earnestly desires to break patterns of destructive behavior, here’s hoping for more poofs in the future than the past.

Public Disservice

Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.

If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white cameronsuburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron willisadvises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis seagramsappeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”

In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of peewee.cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s eastwood.crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack.  This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine. Continue reading →

100 Words on the Harrison Act at 100

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 turns 100 years old tomorrow. The new federal law regulated traffic in opiates and cocaine and produced lasting effects for US and international drug policy (you can read the full text here). Today, four celebrated scholars offer 100-word reflections on first 100 years of the Harrison Act. 

heroinharrisonactnola Continue reading →

Dispatches from the Drug War: Public Opinion and the Policing of Drug Use in Jacksonville

Recent Points inductee Kyle Bridge devoted some of his M.A. research to drug use trends and crime rates in Jacksonville, Florida. Here he presents a modified and abridged version of his work.

Downtown Jacksonville (Image: Wikipedia)

Since at least the early twentieth century, as regular Points readers will know, many Americans have associated illicit drug use with criminality or otherwise deviant behavior. This holds especially true in the last fifty years of U.S. history, and some politicians have made significant hay with the issue. Combating drug abuse was a prominent plank in Richard Nixon’s 1968 platform. “Narcotics are a modern curse of American youth,” he claimed in a campaign speech, and in his first term the President committed to an “all-out assault” on what he labeled “public enemy number-one.” National worries were based on a legitimate correlation: in 1969 users made up a significant portion if not the majority of criminal perpetrators in metro areas including Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, New York, and Boston.

Nixon’s the One (but not the only one)

As a student of history and lifelong Jacksonville resident (actually Callahan, a small town just north of the city), I was curious about the local dynamic of this association, and how it changed over time. The Jacksonville public regarded drug use with an unsurprising wariness, similar to Americans nationwide. Still, policing drug use warranted little attention in local politics until around 1995, almost a half-decade after crime rates peaked during the crack epidemic. In fact new attention to drug use surfaced three years into what would become an almost entirely consistent twenty-year crime decline. By the turn of the millennium, the drug arrest rate had jumped to 1,115.18 per 100,000, almost doubling rates from the height of the crack epidemic (never higher than 689.62).

Continue reading →