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Junkie and the Opioid Epidemic
April 27, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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William Burroughs Junkie seems like a prophecy

I was going to be sitting waiting for Jan for a while in an office last week. I wanted to do some relaxing reading while waiting, but not on my phone. I looked for the smallest book on my shelves. I found the tiny paperback Junkie by William Burroughs, published in 1953, sold for $0.60 at the time by Ace Books.

I am also reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which constitutes three massive volumes. Volume One was published in 1776. Not very portable.

Both books contain many passages that stand the test of time. Human nature has not changed.

William Burroughs got a degree in English from Harvard before he became an addict. Why did he become an addict? He claims (I am not sure he is a reliable narrator) "You become a narcotics addict because you don't have strong motivations in other directions. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. . . I ended up hooked."

Burroughs joined the addict community during World War II. It was a tiny community in those days, something that seemed likely to wither away. There had been a burst of opioid addiction earlier in the 20th century, before most over-the-counter opioid products were banned. Burroughs describes a sad little community of losers who had a lot of trouble finding morphine or heroin for sale even when they had the money to buy it.

Opium was only an occasional cultural problem until British merchants, backed by the British government, decided it would do the British economy good to trade opium instead of silver to the Chinese in the 19th century. China still had the world's largest economy in 1800, though it was falling rapidly behind in science, technology, business practices, and military might. Its main export to the British was tea, which had to be paid for mostly in silver. Opium was illegal in China. The British did not like that and launched the Opium War in 1839, defeated the Chinese military, and "opened" China to opium and other imports from Europe (Americans, including the Delano family, piggybacked on that).

Addicts infect new addicts. The other major source of addicts is patients treated for pain. Junkie documents how addicts, police, and medicine interact with the economic needs and humanitarian principles of doctors. Nothing much has changed there.

War is a big source of pain. When men come home who were shot up with morphine on or near the battlefield, they are often inclined to addiction. I suspect that this group was the main source of new users in the 1950s, when heroin started being a big business for organized crime in the U.S. Amphetamine use also expanded because the U.S. military issued pills to soldiers to help keep them alert during the war.

In the 1960s illegal drug use became generalized in the culture. Marijuana use became almost as prevalent as tobacco use. Burroughs disdains hemp users. "One thing about weed. A man under the influence of weed is completely unfit to drive a car." "Teaheads are gregarious, they are sensitive, and they are paranoiac . . . I soon found out I couldn't get along with these characters."

Homelessness is often associated with addiction. When I was younger, say in the 1980s, most of the homeless (I thought of them as bums or hobos, back then) seemed to have alcohol problems. Now, while homeless people come in many varieties, heroin addiction seems to be the most common drug problem, at least here in Seattle.

The main cause of Seattle's homeless population is high rents and general unavailability of apartments, including low-rent slums. Slums, ugly as they are, fill a social function. You don't pay much rent, and the landlord does not have to spend much on maintenance. When rents are high it is worth it to landlords to do more maintenance and charge more rent. There used to be more slums in Seattle. I lived in one for a while (in the 80s), which beat sleeping in parks. When slums aren't available more people end up in the streets.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire was gradual and came in waves. An addict often begins with a joy pop, or some pills for pain for an injury, and only much latter finds that the drug has found a new slave. Burroughs recounts the many times he quit for a while, and how he always lost his will at some point and restarted, even though he knew his life would get worse. He is merciless in describing his junkie acquaintances. And of course, since he lived mostly off a trust fund, he survived to become a famous artist. But most junkies just fade away.

I believe people in pain should be able to get pain killers from health organizations. That may be a slippery slope, but life consists of nothing but slippery slopes that all end in death. Maybe everyone receiving opioids needs long term follow up.

I feel lucky I never tried opioids. I did do enough amphetamines at one point to feel sick when they wore off, which was enough of a warning for me. Junkie was also a warning. I'm not sure when I first read it, probably in the 70s, when I had already experimented with a variety of recreational drugs. It made me decide to avoid heroin. Maybe it should be assigned reading.

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