Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He reviews the Netflix series How to Fix a Drug Scandal, a mini-series released earlier this year. We also wanted to point out an article from The Conversation, a site that, like Points, offers academic insights on contemporary and historical events. Did you know that the Mother’s Day flowers you might have bought last Sunday are potentially tied to the US war on drugs? You can read more about that here.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal is a four-part docuseries directed by Erin Lee Carr streaming on Netflix. The scandal centers on two chemists: Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak who were employed by the state of Massachusetts to perform chemical analysis on drugs in criminal cases, verifying their authenticity. The two pursued their crimes quite differently. Dookhan was good at falsifying reports. She did it through so-called “dry labbing” or visual testing: say police sent an evidence bag filled with a white powder to her office. Maybe the substance was table salt or maybe it was cocaine. If it was table salt rather than cocaine and you were the defendant in the case, you definitely didn’t want the evidence to be analyzed by Dookhan because the drug certificate submitted was going to say cocaine. Was there a specific reason Dookhan did this? Not really. We know she didn’t care about accuracy or the real-world effect of her actions, which had devastating effects on the lives of individuals and their families.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Jeremy Milloy, the W. P. Bell Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Allison University. In it, he adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history. More than a traditional review, however, Milloy also interviews Miller. Enjoy!
Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most successful social movements in history. It has exercised more influence over treatment of substance use disorder than probably any other non-state organization in history. AA programming is the foundation of upscale private rehabs and prison programs alike. Today almost two million people are believed to be AA members, with many more in the myriad of other 12-step fellowships created in its image. But for the great majority of people who go to AA, it doesn’t work.
Why then, did AA become the first, and often, the last treatment option? Why does it remain so today? These are some of the questions journalist and English professor Joe Miller tackles in his timely and trenchant new history US Of AA: How The Twelve Steps Hijacked The Science of Alcoholism. In it, Miller deftly combines a personal narrative about his struggles with alcohol and journey through AA to stable program of moderation with the larger history of AA itself.
Drug policy historians, academics and the press more generally often present drug use as though it were a marginal activity. We can fault a lot of this confusion on the arbitrary distinctions that are commonly made, starting with categories like legal and illegal use, which are then further subdivided and sliced into even more granular classifications.
Thomas Hager’s Ten Drugs whose focus is on prescription “medications,” opens the book by highlighting drugs’ ubiquity in American life: “More than half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug on a regular basis, and most of those who fall into that group take more than one (somewhere between four and twelve prescriptions per person per year, depending on which study you look at). One expert estimates that Americans takes an average of ten pills per person per day. Add in nonprescription drugs—over-the-counter vitamins, cold and flu remedies, aspirin, and other supplements—and run the numbers: Let’s say a low-ball estimate of two pills per day per American over an average of seventy-eight plus years of life. The total outcome comes to somewhere more than 50,000 pills, on average, in the average American’s lifetime. And there’s a good chance it’s a lot more. Americans constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population but spend more than 50 percent of the money that flows into the world’s drug companies. And that’s not even counting illegal drugs.”
Once you throw in recreational and illegal drugs, this leaves no segment of society untouched. These figures could be interpreted as troubling, as our society grows ever reliant on psychological crutches to get through the day. Of course, while that’s partially true, there are also serious issues that have been left unresolved, to say nothing of the precarious state millions wake up to. Setting that aside, the larger point is our discourse is divorced from this underlying reality.
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.
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.