|WOL: How did you get
involved with drug reform?
Sugerman: I read Arnold
Trebach's "The Heroin Solution." I already knew someone on legal
heroin in England. He was very functional, and I was amazed at the
turnaround. "I assume you're clean," I said. "No, I'm on prescribed
heroin." Being able to function on heroin had been my own experience
as well, so I thought "this guy Trebach gets it." I wrote him and
sent him three of my books. He wrote me back, and we established
a friendship that still endures. I think he and Ethan Nadelmann are
the two guys with the best grasp of drug policy -- the issues, the problems,
and the solutions.
[Ed: Trebach is founder
of the Drug Policy Foundation, and Nadelmann is director of the newly-merged
Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.]
WOL: You bring some
personal experience to the table, too, don't you?
Sugerman: Oh, yes.
I was working with the Doors, and then Jim Morrison died. I got into
heroin shortly after because I didn't know how to handle the grief.
And there was drinking, cocaine, quaaludes. I've been in many recovery
and treatment programs over the years. I was so lucky not to get
arrested, not to die. I'm currently in an Alcoholics Anonymous group
-- it's really about 60-40 dopers to alcoholics -- and one of the 12 steps
is to help others once we've had a spiritual awakening. Forgive me
for selfishness, but it's the best feeling in the world to help other addicts
with treatment and medical programs. It's the least I can do.
To help them and help educate the public.
WOL: You've been on
the scene for some time, and you've chronicled a lot of wild behavior.
Is anyone learning anything?
Sugerman: The word
is out that crack is bad news. That only took about a decade.
But smoking heroin is in, the number of addicts has doubled in the last
ten years. Heroin is so seductive; its such a peaceful, serene feeling.
You don't start doing heinous things until you're strung out and can't
afford your habit. Many people who I know who do heroin started doing
it as a come-down drug for the coke. There's a lot of heroin smoking
going on out there in the rock 'n roll scene. There are 5,000 bands
in Southern California and maybe 20 of them will get a record contract.
There's fear of success and fear of failure. And these people love
the rock 'n roll lifestyle, and it's rough, man. Not a week goes
by when somebody doesn't come to me wanting or needing help.
WOL: The urge to excess
may be a constant, but society's response to it can change over time.
Are we seeing a change in public or media attitudes on drug issues?
Sugerman: For one thing,
I think a new attitude has developed over the past 10 or 15 years.
Everyone knows an addict who has relapsed and relapsed. And now,
here in California, at least Prop. 36 gives the addict a second chance.
Even so, lots of people have already been to jail many times. The
problem for Robert Downey Jr. now is this is his second strike. There's
not too much compassion on the bench for a white actor who continually
defies the law.
WOL: Downey's case
seems to generate polarized responses: Some call him a spoiled bum
and want him jailed, while others talk of "a cry for help" and say he needs
patience and understanding. But there's been a new response, too,
or at least one that hasn't been said out loud before. A few people
have argued that he's been doing drugs for 20 years, been successful in
his career, may have messed up his private life, but basically should be
left alone to do drugs or not. Is that sound advice or good social
Sugerman: He has been
doing it 20 years; he's a seasoned pro. He's not going to kill himself
or anyone else. He and I have gotten loaded with the same people,
been in the same rehab programs, traveled in the same Hollywood circles,
so I'm sympathetic to his plight. He is a casualty of the war on
drugs. Prison didn't work, three tries at treatment didn't work.
He's an addict. The ideal solution is to look the other way.
If he wants to destroy his life with drugs, that's his fucking choice.
To put someone in jail for using drugs in the privacy of his hotel room
is just barbaric. There's just as great a likelihood that he would
hurt himself when he was sober. "If I can't do the one thing that
makes me feel good..."
I do assume that he is innocent,
though, until he is proven or pleads guilty. People who say the caller
who turned him in saved his life just don't know what they're talking about.
I know he has been struggling, and some people just don't get better.
His case illustrates that jailing people doesn't work.
WOL: How should we
deal with drug addiction?
Sugerman: It should
be a medical issue, not a criminal one. I'm a strong advocate for
methadone; it save my life. Not everyone can or wants to go straight.
And you've got to get through detox before you can begin treatment, but
you lose half your people in the first week because it's so uncomfortable.
Interventionists don't address that. They should do heroin maintenance
here like they do in Switzerland. I'm very much in favor of medicalizing
heroin maintenance for addicts. Not that the stuff should be available
in liquor stores, but prescribed to patients by doctors who know them.
With opiates, you can take them and still function; you can hold down a
job. I participated in such a program in Liverpool 12 years ago,
and many people there worked and had normal family lives. There are
criminals who are drug users, but most addicts are criminals only by virtue
of prohibition or from resorting to crime to pay inflated black market
prices. If you prescribed heroin to current addicts, you'd save an