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The Disease of More Drives the War on Drugs

This former international drug smuggler in recovery—featured in the film How to Make Money Selling Drugs—decries the US addiction to corporate profiteering from the imprisonment of addicts.

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The author, center, during his prison stay Photo via

By Brian O'Dea

06/25/13

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The new psychiatrists' desk reference, the DSM-5, is missing the number one mental disorder plaguing our country—The Need for More. As we continue to live with our focus on the desired goal—as opposed to living in the moment—we become more used to believing the constant bombardment of messages hurled our way. They say, "Get more done, get what the other person has, lose more fat, gain more muscle, get that girl or guy." In short: "Get more, feel better."

This moment may not be so great. But something in the near future will help us in this moment. That is an impossibillity—and our common dilemma. We never get to be in the present because we are in constant pursuit of another, more appropriate moment.

I know what I'm talking about, as an addict of more. In the 1970s and '80s I was a large-scale international drug smuggler. I quit the business in 1986—only to become a drug addict myself, suffering an overdose in 1988. This led to recovery and to my becoming a drug and alcohol counselor. But my past caught up with me; the DEA brought a case, I pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years, though I was paroled early. At one time I owned a trucking company, and had a workforce of 120 importing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pot into the United States. And all I could think of, until I got off that merry-go-round, was more. I needed more.

If the War on Drugs had been effective, we would now be shuttering prisons and turning them into much-needed schools.

When I first came into recovery, a friend told me that if I was on target in the here-and-now, the there-and-then would be exactly where it should be when I got there. What a novel concept. Up until that point I had spent most of my life trying to get out of its moments. I had no idea. But slowly, I have found that everything I need to move forward is contained in the here and now. Until I came to grips with that, I kept looking for more of everything.

There is consumerism and addiction, and then there is our nation's internal war against our own citizens—the War on Drugs. For 44 years now, we have been locking more people up, and building more and more prisons to accommodate them, and it keeps on growing. If the War on Drugs had been effective, we would now be shuttering prisons and turning them into much-needed schools, or housing for the poor. Instead that logic is turned back-to-front.

During my own prison term, I spent time at Ray Brook Prison at Lake Placid, New York. Originally built as the Olympic Village for the 1980 Winter Olympics, its design reflected the fact that it was going to be used as a prison afterward. Would that it were the other way around—that we did not lead the world in the incarceration of our own citizens, that we closed some of our prisons to become Olympic Villages. But if that were to happen, then the Corrections Corporation of America would not be such a profitable business. Our current reality, instead, is that CCA has offered to buy just about every state prison in the country. CCA, incidentally, recently restructured itself, with IRS approval, as a Real Estate Investment Trust.

In an article in the Huffington Post earlier this year, Chris Kirkham pointed out that, “Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for "challenging corrections budgets." In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90% full, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Huffington Post.” The corporation needs to lock up more Americans. In fact, beholden to their shareholders, it would be fair to say that CCA is addicted to profit. Every quarter they have to present ever-escalating profits to their shareholders, who are likewise addicted to their profit. Any decrease in this high will not be tolerated.

An unwritten part of this deal is this—the crime and punishment model for treating drug offenses, broken as it is (a trillion-dollar break, by the way) will not change. It simply cannot under the condition of the 90% capacity guarantee CCA demands from the states where it operates. Where I come from, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is called addiction. Or insanity. Every single signal we are getting back as reflections of how our present system works tells us it does not work. Yet we keep allowing for the same mistake over and over again, stuck with our heads buried in cement.

A corporate solution in our society, then, is to punish the weakest and most vulnerable among us, as though it will eventually work, but secretly (not too secretly), they are fully aware that if it did work, they would be out of business today. This is a typical addictive behavior trait: putting Band-Aids on hemorrhages.

This CCA model relies on addicts and drug users staying the same, for they represent a disproportionate number of the residents in all incarceration facilities.

Most bank robbers I met during my stay at a number of federal prisons in the US were junkies—heroin addicts who needed money for dope. I never met a single one of them who wanted to be an addict or to rob banks, but they had no idea how to change. They lacked any support, and their only experience outside of the joys of getting a fix was a punishing life. I once had a neighbor on The Freeway, a descriptive name for part of Terminal Island, the prison where I lived. (At the time, it housed 1,300 men in a space designed for 450 maximum.) This neighbor was one of the finest, most gentle and beautiful people I ever met. Inkslinger Sam traded tattoos for heroin; he could not stop doing heroin and robbing banks to pay for it. Our current model of handling people like Sam guarantees capacity at all CCA facilities. So what do you think their lobbyists are up to? They are spending millions in political contributions to see we only get more of the same.

If we could find a way to supply Sam with heroin, he would never rob another bank in his entire life.  We would never hear from him. He would get on with his life knowing he would never have to get in trouble again for a fix. And no one in the world would ever be endangered by his pointing a gun at them for money for dope. The financial burden of doing that would be about a 50th of the current method of handling our Sams, meaning less profit for fewer corporations. 

This is the only chance we have, by the way, of changing Sam’s mind. If we are handling his drug—providing it to him so that he does not ever have to jump through an illegal hoop to get—only then do we have an opportunity to speak with him, to help him find a way out. Under the crime and punishment model, we never have the chance for a reasonable or real conversation; every conversation is invisibly impacted by the omnipotent powerful hammer of justice, and we can never get to solutions through that lens.  

Once again, money trumps all else. As long as there is corporate skin in the game, we should not anticipate change. Profits before people is the unwritten mantra of those cats. Change is the last thing they’re interested in, so that should be our cue to making change the first thing that interests us.

As my sponsor, Doug says, “Change, babe. Don’t ever stay the same!”

Brian O'Dea is a film and TV producer, and author of High: Confessions of an International Drug SmugglerHe is featured in Matthew Cooke's film How To Make Money Selling Drugs, in theaters and available VOD later this month.

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