site map

Heroin in Mainstream Publishing

At the Book Expo America (BEA) meeting this year, I came upon this impressive looking book, Heroin by Humberto Fernandez. Weighing in at just over 300 pages, the book intends to be an "up-to-the-minute, comprehensive, no-nonsense examination" of heroin from its discovery to its current use". Unfortunately, although the book has a good deal of useful information, it is weighed down by its author's acceptance of the same old lies: heroin use is necessarily abuse, addiction is a disease, and AA is an effective treatment for drug abuse.

We would live in a much better world if books such as Fernandez's were considered bad. Unfortunately, they are about the best that mainstream publishing has to offer. At least this book has something of value, and it is not riddled with factual errors (though there are a fair number).

Take, for example, Heroin (1) by Sandra Lee Smith which is also distributed by Hazelden--the publisher of Fernandez's book. This book tries to be an introduction to heroin for teenagers. But the author is utterly ignorant about drugs generally, and heroin in particular. What's more, she makes statements which, in addition to being false, seem designed to upset already worried parents (who are as likely as teenagers to read a book such as this). One such statement is that heroin is easy to obtain (2)--commonly sold on school yards.

If You Aren't Against It, You're For It

The books that I write are in no way pro-drug. But just the same, they are not anti-drug. As a result, my publishers have been very concerned with the accuracy of the information in my books. They have various practical reasons for their concern--in particular, lawsuits. I am also very concerned. But my concern is simply that I do not want anyone to be hurt because of anything I've written.

People writing anti-drug books no doubt think they needn't worry about the accuracy of the information they provide--as long as it causes people to not use drugs. This means their books are rhetorical, not expositive. The problem is that these books claim to be expositive--to simply provide information. Smith's book, for example is not presented as a argument against heroin use. Rather, it is sold as information that allows teens to make intelligent choices about heroin use. Of course, these two are the same when the writer is convinced that the only intelligent choice regarding heroin use is to "just say no!"

Perhaps this is why my books (and those of my colleague) are so different. The truth of the matter is that I don't know whether people should use heroin. Some people manage to use heroin--even in the current political climate--while keeping their lives together. But for most people, heroin use causes havoc in their lives.

I see my job as three-fold, and I think anyone who writes about drugs should see things similarly. First, I don't want to encourage people to use heroin or any drug. Although I think that drugs can improve some people's lives, people are better off if they can get along without drugs. Second, I want to provide information that will keep what I consider to be "responsible users" using responsibly. I hate the idea of a heroin user becoming addicted simply because he does not know how to avoid it; if he can't control his usage, that is another matter altogether, of course. Finally, I want to provide information for addicts and irresponsible users that will keep them as safe as possible.

I have a personal anecdote from my using days that relates to this last aspect of the job of writing drug information. It's called Suicide and that sums up the article. You can't help everyone.

I truly believe that if people follow the advice in my drug books, they will be safer (though not necessarily safe). Of course, being safe is often not the most important thing to a heroin user--for some, the danger is part of the thrill. You can't force people to take your advice, but it is there for the taking.

Anti-Drug Books Say More Than We Think

It is wrong to think that the only message that anti-drug literature conveys is "don't use drugs." The fact of the matter is that many drug users read these anti-drug books--taking whatever information they can from them. And they assume that the information is accurate. Often the inaccuracies are little things like exaggerating the size of the "drug problem"; but often it is far worse.

Take, for example, the Teen Challenge web site which repeatedly states that heroin is injected into arteries. What is particularly terrible is that authors of such errors don't seem inclined to correct them. In the case of the Teen Challenge error, HEROIN helper sent a very civil and helpful letter a couple of months ago. Teen Challenge has neither changed the information nor responded to our email.

Luckily, drug users who are on the Internet have a lot of options for good information (check out our Friends page for a few). But that doesn't excuse others from disseminating information that could potentially kill drug users--especially after the error has been pointed out.

Perhaps this goes along with the governmental practice of spraying paraquat on marijuana: drug users deserve whatever they get (check out this excellent overview of Paraquat). What a horrible attitude, though; especially from people who claim to be trying to save lives.

It is well known in our society that a writer of anti-drug information will not be held accountable for the accuracy of what he writes. This, of course, is wartime thinking. During a war, the society tends to be intolerant of anything negative said about the war. And conversely, anything said in favor of the war, regardless of how incorrect, is okay. Perhaps this is yet another casualty of the War on Drugs: honest discussion of drugs.

Enter Oliver Wendell Holmes

There is a long history of closing down public debate during time of war--even though one would think a country would need it more then than any time. At one time, it was necessary to enact laws to limit free speech at these times. This is where we get Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous quote about free speech not permitting a man to yell fire in a crowded movie house. (3) The actual quote is as follows:

The most stringent protection of free-speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.... The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent them. It is a question of proximity and degree.

Most people do not know what this quote was being applied to. If they did know, they would not be so fond of quoting it. It comes from a Supreme Court Ruling on Schenck vs. US, 1919. In the case, the "yelling fire in a crowded theater" is actually "passing out anti-draft pamphlets during World War I." From the same decision:

When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its efforts that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.

This second quote has completely left the American cultural memory. Such an interpretation of the First Amendment flies in the face of what most people are still taught (and believe) about freedom of speech; namely, that it is intended to protect political speech above all else. This is why as a culture, we have hung on to the idea that there are limits to freedom of speech with the theater fire story (culturally, Americans believe there are some limits on free speech), but not the actual context in which these limits are supposed to apply (culturally, Americans believe such a political protest is exactly what the First Amendment is all about).

You'd Have to Be Crazy to Say That!

Today, we do not limit speech during wartime in such an overt way--not most of the time, anyway. Instead, our government does what it no doubt learned from the great totalitarianisms of the 20th Century: pretended that dissent is tantamount to insanity.

One needn't be too old to remember the way Kasey Kasum was treated during the Persian Gulf War. At that time, he was doing a media tour, pointing out the biased portrayal of Iraqis and other people from that region. Normally objective newsreporters could barely hide their utter confusion that anyone could hold opinions such as those of Kasum.

The same is true during our current Drug War. Anyone who says that drug use (much less drug addiction) is not necessarily bad is completely off the map. The only person saying this who is at all in the mainstream, is Thomas Szasz. He is tolerated, when he is tolerated, because he is a libertarian and everyone knows what extremists they are. Regardless, his arguments are always discounted--but not based upon their own merits. Instead, his arguments are discounted because of who he is. If his arguments are attacked at all, they are simply pushed aside as being "extreme" or "far removed from what most Americans believe". Regardless, Szasz is the Kasey Kasum of the Drug War.

I got a free copy of the Fernandez book because I was talking to a Hazelden editor about writing a guide for treatment professionals on how to deal with the special needs of heroin users. I still think this is a good idea. But looking at the one Hazelden book that is closest to what I would write, I'm concerned. I can't pretend to be a Drug Warrior. I can't pretend that heroin destroys lives when the heroin laws are responsible for at least ten times as much damage. I can't pretend that history doesn't teach us that we would be better off without the drug laws. I can't pretend that medical science doesn't teach us that all of the opioid family of drugs is less dangerous than alcohol.

How to Write a Best Selling Drug Book

In order to write a mainstream book about heroin addiction, I would be forced to lie--or to be far more ignorant than I am. Of course, not trying simply yields the game to those who are dishonest or ignorant. The best way to look at the situation is to see that every bit of truth that gets published--regardless of how ignored it may be by the mainstream--breaks down the Drug War facade that says everyone knows the same truths about drugs: the truths that come from the TV set.

I'm not speaking of the minor turf wars that the government allows: forced treatment vs. incarceration; medical marijuana; rock and powder cocaine possession sentencing. I'm talking about the fundamental issues that cannot be discussed. Can someone be addicted to heroin and still have a fulfilling life? Is it better to live in pain than live with a drug addiction? Why is it okay to use drugs to relieve pain but not to increase happiness? Who exactly is benefiting from the Drug War and how are they benefiting?

In his book, Fernandez lambastes various industries for glamorizing heroin use (or addiction--he doesn't seem to differentiate). But he fails to see that all of these industries and the government are in agreement about the core drug issues. He goes so far as to write, "those industries not only have far greater resources at their disposal [than the government], they are not burdened by the mission of telling the truth."

This statement shows that Fernandez is completely vested in the government line about drugs. First, he thinks the portrayal of heroin use causes real life heroin use instead of seeing that fashion ads and Hollywood movies are simply a reflection of real life. Second, the government spends enormous amounts of money on anti-drug propaganda. Calvin Kline couldn't even come close. Third, and probably most telling, the government is not burdened by the mission of telling the truth. In fact, the government has consistently lied about drugs for the last 100 years. People often think that because the government is not in the business of making money, that it is noble. Wow. First, the government has seemingly endless resources to put to vilifying drug use. Second, the government is the one entity that, over the past 100 years, could be counted on to lie about drugs. Fernandez shows incredible naivete when making such statements. But that's mainstream drug writing.


(1) Note that these two books have the same title: Heroin. The implication is clear: heroin is some monolithic thing. There is no need to discuss a particular aspect of heroin because there is no particular aspect of heroin. There is just heroin. Better titles for these books would be: Heroin Addiction: its history and current approaches to treatment for the Fernandez book and A Teenager's Guide to the Drug Heroin for the Smith book.

(2) I offer the following challenge to Ms. Smith. "If heroin is easy to acquire, then you should have no problem acquiring it. I will bet $500 that you cannot score a gram of heroin given an entire month to do so. Please contact me first, so that we can clarify the terms of this agreement. I'll be waiting."

(3) Not that long ago, I was in a crowded movie theater and the fire alarm went off. The people in the audience looked around, saw there was no smoke, and so ignored the alarm. Holmes comment, even taken out of context, is quite troublesome. The truth of the matter is that people don't have to be protected from free speech. They can make up their own minds if the speech they are hearing is something they should heed or ignore.

by Dr. H
© 2001
Last Modified: 21 Jul 10