Sir Richard Branson is the latest celebrity to blast US drug policy, calling the war on drugs a "war on black people." The billionaire Virgin Group founder and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (a body of leading figures and politicians campaigning for more effective drugs laws) has called US drug policy racist, as evidenced by the high percentage of African Americans in prisons. "The fundamental difference in America, is that it is a war against black people in America," says Branson. "85% of people who go to prison for drug use in America are black people. They don't take more drugs, but it's a racist law against black people in America." The British business magnate cites Portugal, which decriminalized drug use but still prosecutes traffickers and dealers, as a superior model of effective and fair drug policy. He also urges the US government to treat addiction as an illness, emphasizing treatment and education over criminalizing addicts and drug users. "You’ve got something like 1.5 million people in American jails languishing for taking drugs and that is wrong," he says. "Those people would be much better being out in society, being helped if they have drug problem, getting off the problem."
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Texas is not doing enough to protect residents from the health risks caused by meth labs, reports StateImpact Texas. Every ounce of meth cooked produces four or five ounces of toxic byproduct, and meth cooks will dump it anywhere they can. And if those chemicals aren't cleaned up properly, they can cause a range of health problems. In Texas, there are no laws requiring homeowners to clean a property after police break up a meth lab there—so landlords can rent ex-meth labs right away, without even telling tenants about the building’s history. “I’ve got a whole filing cabinet of contaminated homes in Austin that have probably never ever been cleaned,” says Kirk Flippin, owner of Texas Decon Environmental Services, a company specializing in meth lab cleanup. “Texas is very unregulated. It’s kind of like the wild wild West…The citizens aren’t being protected by the state of Texas.” Exposure to the chemicals used by meth cooks can cause health problems like lung disorders and nervous system issues. In children, they may also cause skin rashes and damage to organs like the liver, thyroid and kidneys.
The laws Texas does have to protect residents tend to be ineffective. For example, sellers are required to tell a buyer if a house was used as a meth lab—but if a bank or real estate agent is selling a foreclosed home, they can omit that tiny detail. Other states have much stricter laws: in Colorado, a house can be quarantined even if someone just smoked meth inside. Those campaigning to change the rules in Texas have yet to see much progress. Texas legislature member David Leibowitz proposed requiring landlords to disclose any meth lab history to future tenants: the bill died in the House, and no similar ideas have been suggested since. “The bill failed because the apartment industry put their profits before their renter’s health," says Leibowitz. "They vigorously opposed the bill. They didn’t want to have to notify potential tenants if a meth lab had been in a particular rental unit. They wanted to be able to continue to rent it out.”
The infamous Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar was killed nearly two decades ago, but his face is now plastered across Mexico—via a popular designer T-shirt line. Escobar's Medellín cartel—which once controlled 80% of the world's cocaine market—is held responsible for thousands of deaths. His 39-year-old son, Sebastian Marroquin, who changed his name from Juan Pablo Escobar Henao after his father's death in 1993, is now marketing high-end tees displaying his father's face and some provocative messages. "What's your future looking like? / Nice pace, but wrong way" reads one, emblazoned with Escobar's driver's license. Despite some fairly extortionate prices, they're selling fast. "We're not trying to make an apology for drug trafficking, to glamorize it in the way that the media does," claims Marroquin. The shirts are apparently meant instead to "provoke reflection." But they're accused of cashing in on violence, and of fueling fascination with cartel culture. They're available from stores in Sinaloa and Jalisco states, both of which are plagued by drug violence. They're also being sold in Austria, Guatemala and the US—but not Colombia, out of respect for Escobar's victims. Marroquin brushes off the criticism, saying he's not the first to make money from his father, and that books and TV shows have already done the same: "Those who set out to criticize me are the same who have profited from the story, life and name of Pablo Escobar."
Another day, another lawsuit against Four Loko. This time, they’re being sued by a New Jersey man who says drinking two and a half cans of the formerly-caffeinated "energy" beer gave him a heart arrhythmia. Each can contains 12% alcohol—the equivalent of three cans of regular beer—and a recent study found that even moderate amounts of alcohol may increase the risk for arrhythmia for people with diabetes or heart disease. Phusion Projects, the Chicago-based makers of Four Loko, will be keeping their lawyers busy: they're also facing a suit over the death of a 15-year-old boy in Illinois, plus another from an Ohio man who claims the beverage caused him to run out into traffic, where he was hit by a car. Chris Hunter, one of Phusion’s founders, told The Fix in an interview last year that his drink isn't to blame for the tragedies that are often associated with it: “We drank our product, we know it’s like any other alcohol. If you consume something responsibly you’re fine, if you don’t you’re not fine, and I don’t care if that’s Bud Light, Smirnoff vodka or Four Loko.”
Cracking Addiction, tonight's TLC special, spotlights the work of Debbie and Brandon Knauss—a mother-and-son intervention team. They first hit screens in 2003, when Brandon was the subject of the first ever TV intervention, on the Dr. Phil Show. Addicted to drugs including Vicodin and heroin, Brandon struggled, relapsed and at one point spent six months in jail. Debbie was desperate to help her son, and frustrated by professional advice including one therapist's assurance that Brandon could detox "safely" on his own—even though he was then taking between 20 and 40 Vicodin a day—and one psychiatrist's dismissive remark that "He's just a normal kid who wants to party and have a good time." After watching an episode of the Dr. Phil Show, and approving of Dr. Phil McGraw's "no-nonsense approach," she wrote in and received the help she'd hoped for. Brandon, now 30, has nearly seven years drug-free.
Debbie set up the family business, VIP (Vital Intervention Professionals), in 2008. She's a licensed chemical dependency counselor and psychiatric nurse, and also trained as an intervention professional. But she dislikes what she sees as some interventionists' tendency to remove uncooperative addicts' support, or even get them kicked out of their homes, she says. She contrasts this with her flexible, "whatever-it-takes" attitude. She started taking Brandon along to interventions because she "felt that there would be a better chance of saving that person's life if Brandon could communicate with them as a young person who has been there." And soon, "I could see Brandon's God-given talent." She believes that their partnership, of one male and one female, one qualified professional and one recovering addict, is ideally balanced. "We do our best work together because of our strong family bond. I'll know what Brandon is thinking about a situation—we don't even have to talk about it."
Brandon tells The Fix that "I have a lot of experience that they don't teach in school about what these kids are doing." Most of the clients he and his mother work with are in their teens and early 20s—the age at which he experienced his problems—which helps him to relate. He says that the drugs they most often receive calls about are heroin, opiate painkillers and meth: "We usually get called for all the most difficult cases!" He "couldn't imagine a better partner" than his mother, but admits that working with her has its difficulties: "It can be really hard to hear her talk about her personal memories, reliving all the pain I put my family through." However, "seeing the happiness on her face after we've helped someone is the most rewarding thing."
Debbie says that being filmed while working "doesn't affect us at all. We forget that the cameras are there." And the clients? "Actually, they welcome it, because they've seen Brandon on TV—his intervention, his relapses—and they've seen how it worked." Brandon describes going on TV again as "an out-of-body, surreal experience" and a dream: "I feel so blessed to be able to help people in the way that I do."
"I want Cracking Addiction to reveal to families that this is a family disease, that this is a real disease and that you can recover," says Debbie. She feels that drug education in the US often isn't good enough: "When kids are just taught that 'drugs are bad,' then when they experience them for the first time, they're like 'whoa!' when they get that dopamine rush." Much of the information given to young people, she says, is "on a similar level to what they're told about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny." And she has words of caution for her colleagues in the addiction field: "In this industry, we're very quick to jump in and to judge when people go about recovery in different ways. Recovery is as unique as the individual in question."
TLC's Cracking Addiction airs Wednesday, October 3 at 9 pm Eastern. Preview clip: