Doors Manager/Best-Selling Author Danny Sugerman Comments on Addiction, Hollywood and Drug Policy 12/8/00

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Danny Sugerman has been a player in the Los Angeles music scene since working with the legendary rock group, the Doors. A prolific author, he has written five books, most famously "No One Here Gets Out Alive: The Biography of Jim Morrison." Sugerman manages the band's revived career. He is also the author of "Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess," an autobiographical novel depicting his relationships with drugs and with Morrison. That book has been optioned in a movie deal, about which Sugerman is optimistic.

Sugerman's education on the drug issue includes but goes beyond his own experience with addiction; his extensive personal library includes a wide range of books and documents ranging from turn-of-the-century scholarly drug policy reports to novels by addicted authors to anything else you'd be likely or unlikely to find. The Week Online interviewed Sugerman by phone:

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 policy?

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 entire generation.

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Issue #163, 12/8/00 Now He Has Something To Say? Clinton Supports Marijuana Decrim, Sentencing Reform in Rolling Stone Interview | More New Jersey Racial Profiling Fallout, Appeals Court Says Convicted Drug Offenders Can Appeal Based on Practice | In the Wake of the Initiatives: Asset Forfeiture Reform Comes to Oregon and Utah | Doors Manager/Best-Selling Author Danny Sugerman Comments on Addiction, Hollywood and Drug Policy | Missouri Sheriff Overrules Supreme Court on Roadblocks | Canadian Marijuana Party Gets Some Votes, More Attention | Newsbrief: Nevada Panel Recommends Marijuana Misdemeanors -- Again | Governor Johnson Makes Drug Policy Reform Pitch in Playboy Interview | Colombia: Mr. Wellstone Goes to Barrancabermeja | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Should We Laugh, or Cry?
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