Hills of Pills
Has Big Pharma beat the warlords of poppy and the kings of cocaine?
What happened to the dope business?
As you roll around my turf in Police Zone I, the hardbodies who used to lean on light poles and sell heroin and crack on the up-and-up, and cock on the down-low, are nowhere to be seen. The jits (dope kiddies) who manned the lookouts and staffed the street corners — the two-legged squirrels of urban America — are getting scarce.
Are law and order bursting out like azaleas in spring? Should I rename my column "Happy Chat" and move it to The Florida Times-Union?
Jails and prisons, as always, are stuffed with dopers. Recently, I interviewed a defendant busted for sales and distribution. Like all junkies going cold turkey, this guy jittered around the room, his eyeballs twitching faster than olives in a drunk's martini. Oozing that jailhouse stank of sweat, narcotics, nicotine and fear, he whimpered for drugs like a spanked puppy.
The drug he craved, however, was not heroin or cocaine, but oxycodone. "Oxys," trade name Oxycontin, and hydrocodone, trade names Vicodin and Lortab, are semi-synthetic opioids that are similar chemically to morphine, codeine and heroin. They are No. 4 on the top 10 list of abused drugs, behind old faves alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This prisoner was 6 feet of tough guy. Even a few years ago, he would have considered pills to be mommy drugs, something to help ladies cruise through afternoons and enjoy intrigues with Mr. Palooka and Mr. Pocket Rocket while the kiddies were at school and hubby was stoking The Machine.
Things have changed. First, these pills could drop a charging rhino. Oxys and hydros are only a molecule away from heroin. Forget Valium and Xanax. These newbies really pack a punch. There's no initial rush, like you get with the needle, but they last all day. In junkie-land, that's better living through chemistry.
Second, incompetent and crooked doctors have spread like a foul fungus throughout medicine. The worst are opening "pain clinics" faster than the po-po can close them down. Why practice medicine, which is difficult, when you can scribble your sig on prescriptions all day at $150 a pop, all cash?
Third, pills are cheap. Oxys and hydros are generic. Ten bucks buys you a three-month supply at Walmart. Why spend thousands a month for heroin when you can stay loaded for weeks for less than the cost of two Whoppers and a Coke? Need stimulants? Adderall and Ritalin are generic, too. Why buy an 8-ball (1/8 ounce) of crack, which costs $80 and lasts only one day?
Fourth, you don't have to buy pills from guys wearing grilles and Glocks. Those smiling pharmacists are legit. The doctors are criminals, of course, but they're not likely to shoot you. Too much heat.
The consequences are international. Using the magical formula of low prices and high volume, Big Pharma is grabbing America's drug dough and putting the squeeze on warlords from Bamiyan to Bogotá. No wonder the Taliban are angry. If your peasants had to scrape poppy juice off pods, cook it into bricks, haul it on donkeys while dodging Hellfire missiles, then sell it for bupkis in some crapola market in the Hindu Kush, you'd be pissed, too.
The pill tsunami has, de facto, legalized heroin and cocaine equivalents. Pills are the addict's holy grail — cheap, legal, pharmaceutically pure dope. No more needles, AIDS or heroin cut with rat poison. No more hoodlums smacking your head with bats when you can't pay.
From an armchair in the burbs, you'd think the replacement of illegal drugs with pills would devastate the criminal justice system, whose modern edifice is built on dope. Without drug arrests, Jacksonville wouldn't need a skyscraper jail, a $350 million courthouse and $345 million per year for 1,700 boys and girls in blue and their dutiful civilian assistants.
Nobody Downtown is losing any sleep, however. They know that junkies are born to be cop bait. The poor idiots take their pills out of bottles, which have a prescription on the label, and put them into baggies. This makes legal pills, like magic, illegal again! Then the mopes drive under the influence, get disorderly and act out in front of police. When jailed, even though some can produce a prescription and get the drug beef dismissed, they usually have enough add-on charges to keep the justice system at full employment, as God intended.
For now, junkies who aren't in jail are tucked away in their cribs, yammering on burner phones and watching TV instead of robbing and burgling to feed the monkey on their backs. This won't last. Once the state puts the kibosh on the pills, this social pustule will burst. The foul exudate will run into the drains and once again transform the pleasant metropolis on the St. Johns,
Into Crime City.