Bill Booth kindly invited me on to his podcast to discuss health and medicine. Bill is one of the founders of Radical Americas, an academic network for scholars and activists with interests in radicalism in the Western Hemisphere.
The ADHS is excited to announce that its next bi-annual conference will be held between 12 and 15 June 2019, at the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies, Shanghai University, China. The conference will be organised by Prof. Jim Mills, of the University of Strathclyde and Prof. Yong-an Zhang of Shanghai University, who […]
A great day for historians of drugs and alcohol! Told in tweets.
Check it out.
Mental health knowledge and practice was highly contested in the 1960s and 70s. Struggles over homosexuality and radicalism, drug use and replicable drug trials, were part of a unique countercultural moment. These were wild times. Transactional analysis, developed by Eric Berne and Claude Steiner, was also part of this fiercely energetic moment.
In January 2017 Claude Steiner (pictured above), a clinical psychologist, passed away in California. According to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Steiner’s last words were, ‘Love is the answer’ and ‘I’m so lucky’. He had led a long and full life, and left behind an important legacy in psychology. Steiner was a founder of the Radical Therapist Collective, protested at American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association meetings, and edited a collection of Readings in Radical Psychiatry in 1975. Steiner also published a short children’s story called The Warm Fuzzy Tale in 1969 and Games Alcoholics Play in 1970. In 1974, he followed these books up with Scripts People Live, which was a bestseller in the United States. Most importantly, Steiner was influential in developing and popularising transactional analysis.
Steiner was born in France, relocated to Mexico, and then moved to California in 1952 to study physics. But in the aftermath of atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and seeing how physics was associated with nuclear weapons, he rejected the field. The link to bombs and bomb-making put him off. Transferring to psychology and eventually obtaining his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1965, he became a close associate of Eric Berne. Set against the backdrop of a topsy-turvy mental health landscape, it is clear that their story had an important impact on psychology – during a unique moment in time – through the creation of transactional analysis.
The full article can be read here
Enjoy. And I’ve written similar work on the 1960s and mental health:
with Social History of Medicine…
and Hidden Persuaders…
Today I write for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader-Post.
The story of cancer patient Ric Richardson, a Métis man from Green Lake, challenges us to think about patient autonomy, medical traditions and Saskatchewan health care.
Just as crucial, his story forces us to reconsider the use and acceptance of traditional Aboriginal knowledge — not only in medicine but in society more broadly.
The full story can be read here:
This past week the UK Government released a Drugs Strategy. Here is some of the reaction to the document, which is available here.
From The Independent:
The Government’s latest policy relaunch aimed at tackling illegal drugs amid soaring death rates has been heavily criticised by campaigners who say it fails to get to grips with the problem.
The UK Drug Strategy 2017 was announced by the Home Office as its flagship initiative to reduce use of illicit substances and improve addiction recovery rates.
Drug misuse has been falling in recent years, figures show. Some 2.7 million 16- to 59-year-olds in England and Wales took illegal drugs in 2015-16, down from 10.5 per cent a decade ago.
However, the latest available figures also reveal deaths are soaring. Some 3,674 drug poisoning deaths involving legal and illegal substances were recorded in 2015, up from 3,346 in 2014 and the most since comparable records began in 1993. Cocaine deaths reached an all-time high in 2015, and deaths involving heroin and/or morphine doubled over three years to reach record levels.
The new Home Office strategy identifies new emergent threats, including drugs previously known as legal highs such as Spice – the drug blamed for causing a “zombie plague” in city centres, which is now causing havoc in the prison system.
Chemsex drugs like crystal meth, GHB/GBL and mephedrone, which are taken before or during sex to boost the experience, are also identified as a growing problem among users who expose themselves to blood-borne infections and viruses, according to the strategy.
It promises “targeted interventions” and close collaboration between sexual health services and other relevant groups, as well as more help for addicts to find houses and jobs and better controls at borders.
However, it immediately came under fire from people and organisations campaigning to reduce the harm caused by drugs.
Some argued that by refusing to countenance any sort of decriminalisation it could never make any serious dent in a trade controlled by organised criminals at an estimated cost to society of £10.7bn a year.
Models in countries such as Portugal were cited, where decriminalising drugs and treating their use as a health issue has reduced consumption, addiction and funding for criminals.
From the Daily Mail:
The Government has ‘no intention’ of making cannabis legal in the UK, officials have announced in a new blitz on drugs.
Despite a growing body of evidence showing the world’s favourite recreational drug to be safe, possession will remain punishable with jail.
Experts have slammed the Home Office’s controversial decision, describing it as a ‘missed opportunity’ to legalise the herb.
But ministers pointed to various studies that have shown cannabis to be detrimental to human health, with significant links to schizophrenia.
Such worrying associations have existed for decades, and were responsible the decision to reclassify the drug to a Class B nine years ago.
In recent years, Spain, South Africa, Uruguay and several states in the US have made cannabis legal for recreational use.
Pressure has been increasing on the UK to follow suit and update its drug policy, with many citing weed’s medicinal properties.
But Ian Hamilton, a drug researcher based at York University, told MailOnline the UK’s updated stance shows it’s falling behind.
He said: ‘The government has missed an opportunity to provide less harmful ways of people accessing and using cannabis.
‘The UK is falling behind many other countries who are adopting progressive policies towards drug use.
‘These countries have embraced the evidence and recognise that punishing people who use drugs does not improve their health and adds to social inequality.’
Cannabis is currently a Class B drug in the UK, and anyone found in possession can face up to five years in prison.
From The Guardian:
The wait is finally over for those of us working in the drug policy and drug treatment sectors. The Home Office published its new drug strategy on Friday, two years after its planned deadline in 2015. Sadly, however, this is not a case of good things coming to those who wait. For a 50-page document, there’s very little in the new strategy that can earn it its name.
Against a backdrop of increasing policy innovation in the wider world, the main aims of this strategy are largely unchanged from the previous 2010 version. There’s still a focus on recovery, rather than harm reduction. A continued commitment to tackling the problems caused by drugs through the criminal justice system, rather than through the health system. A point blank refusal to consider decriminalisation, or any reforms to the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Worse, what good initiatives there are in the strategy – and there are some – seem to have been dreamed up by minds unfettered by the reality of public health, criminal justice and policing systems squeezed to breaking point.
Andy Burnham, giving the keynote address at a conference in Manchester last week aimed at developing a more connected response to the city’s rising spice epidemic, echoed the thoughts of many in these fields: “Where is the money? Our frontline services are being overwhelmed. I didn’t hear any mention of any extra funding in the radio this morning. It seems quite hollow, what was being said.”
First then, for the good news. Greater efforts are going to be made to provide effective, evidence-based drug prevention and education to young people. Gone are the school visits from the trite ex-user or the finger-wagging police officer: effective resilience training is in.
Prisoners, too, are to be given more help into recovery, their progress monitored closely. Far clearer and more explicit guidelines have been given on the value of opioid maintenance treatments, which allow so many people with opioid dependence to live their lives, and crucially, prevent overdoses.
The people who slip through the cracks of dual diagnosis from mental health and problem substance use are to be better catered for, rather than shunted between services reluctant to take on complex and demanding cases.
Of the rather pedestrian reforms, these are the brightest spots. However, with cuts to local authority public health budgets totalling £85m this year, and ringfenced drug treatment budgets expected to be cut by £22m, it’s anyone’s guess as to where the money will come from for such initiatives. More likely that these reductions will further eat into essential services such as needle exchanges, and hamper local authorities’ ability to properly assess the performance of the services they commission.
(Read the whole article using the link above)
From The Huffington Post:
The Government’s new drugs strategy has been condemned as “business for usual” for failing to embrace radical solutions to soaring drug deaths.
The Home Office announced its long-awaited strategy that pledges to crack down on drug dealers and cut demand by expanding education on drugs and alcohol and expanding the Prevention Information Service.
Writing on HuffPost UK, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the plan would target “unscrupulous drug dealers” while trying to do more to “protect the vulnerable – to prevent them falling into the cycle of drug abuse and to help them turn their lives around”.
While the new strategy does call a rise in drug deaths “dramatic and tragic”, it was condemned as “business as usual” by one advocate for change.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug law experts Release, told HuffPost UK the strategy should have mooted ending criminal punishment for possession, following the lead of other countries.
If you have other stories and media accounts that you think should be added, get in touch.
It’s my pleasure to promote the publication of an important Policy Brief on Cannabis by Kathleen Thompson. Over the past few years she has helped drive conversations about the consumption and control of marijuana. Her recent Policy Brief ought to be read by anyone and everyone! Here’s an extract.
LEGALIZATION OF CANNABIS: THE POLICY CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
By Kathleen Thompson, PhD, MSW, RSW, BA (Hons)
“The commitment by the Government of Canada to legalize cannabis
and cannabis products presents a complex range of socio-economic
challenges and opportunities. Creating the right legal and regulatory
framework to address the implications, both good and bad, will be
key in determining whether legalization is deemed successful public
The federal government plans to introduce cannabis legislation in the
coming spring session of Parliament. The legislation will be based on
the recommendations contained in a report issued on November 30 by
a Task Force of experts who studied the issue for the past year. The Task
Force received input from more than 30,000 Canadians, organizations
and professionals. Entitled “A Framework for the Legalization and
Regulation of Cannabis in Canada”, the report recommends allowing
more flexibility in the current federally controlled cannabis cultivation
model. Specifically, the federal government would regulate a safe and
responsible supply chain of cannabis.”
ABOUT KATHLEEN THOMPSON
Dr. Thompson has worked in health policy analysis and research as a bureaucrat and as a consultant for the last 25 years, specializing in the mental health, disability and corrections sectors.
In 2015, Dr. Thompson created the Cannabis Regulatory Research Group. The focus of the policy research group is on promoting collaborative public policy processes and evidenced-based research with the cannabis industry, governments, academia, civil society and at the United Nations. Additionally, Dr. Thompson consults with individuals and organizations on how to enter the legal cannabis industry.
It was tight. It was very, very close. However, Colombians rejected a peace deal to end 52 years of war with Farc guerrillas, throwing the country into confusion about its future. With counting completed from 98% of polling stations, the no vote led with 50.23% to 49.76%, a difference of 61,000 votes. Not much.
According to the major news sources, including the Guardian, The verdict on the deal between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc means it cannot now be implemented. Polls before the vote predicted that the yes camp would win with a comfortable 66% share. Santos had been confident of a yes result and said during the campaign that he did not have a plan B and that Colombia would return to war if the no vote won. His opponents, led by former president Alvaro Uribe, said a win for their side would be a mandate for the government and rebels to negotiate a “better agreement”.
Under the agreement rejected by voters, the Farc’s 5,800 fighters and a similar number of urban militia members would have disarmed and become a legal political party. Whether or when that will happen now is unknown.The deal would have allowed rebel leaders to avoid jail if they confessed to their crimes such as killings, kidnappings, indiscriminate attacks and child recruitment, something that many Colombians found hard to swallow.
At the same time, Sunday’s outcome amounts to a setback for the United States and the Obama administration, which had backed Santos and pledged to boost U.S. aid to Colombia by nearly 50 percent, to $450 million a year. The fate of that funding proposal is now up in the air.
After nearly six years of negotiations, many handshakes and ceremonial signatures, Colombia’s half-century war that has killed 220,000 and displaced 7 million is not over.
“I am the first to recognize the result,” said President Juan Manuel Santos in a televised address, flanked by members of the government peace negotiating team, who looked stunned. “Now we have to decide what path to take so that peace will be possible. . . . I won’t give up.”
Bernard Aronson, the U.S. special envoy for the peace process, talked with Colombia’s ambassador in an emergency meeting Sunday night. “We believe Colombians want peace, but clearly they are divided about terms of settlement,” he told the Washington Post. “We will continue to support Colombian authorities as they try to build a lasting peace with justice and security.”
In other cocaine news:
The world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who last week pulled out of his proposed rematch with Wladimir Klitschko citing mental health issues, has allegedly tested positive for cocaine. Fury, who holds the WBA and WBO world titles, was informed last Thursday night that his A sample from a random urine test on 22 September had tested positive for the substance benzoylecgonine, the central compound found in cocaine. Fury pulled out of the rematch a day after the test.
After the initial postponement, Fury was pictured shortly afterwards buying England fans alcohol in France at Euro 2016. In the past, the boxer has publicly hinted at taking the drug, in addition to his mental health. Speaking last April on the topic of his depression, Fury stated: “It’s either high or low. I’m either off my head on cocaine or down on the floor from a tranquiliser injection. Most of the time, I’m just down and depressed like today, because for every high there’s a low.”
Fury’s WBA, WBO and IBF belts could be on the line if the allegations are confirmed. He later tweeted a picture of himself in Tony Montana’s chair.
“Say hello to my little friend!”
Business Insider, The Guardian, The Independent, Washington Post, and Time
From 2014–2016, Canadian health authorities were forced to address the issue of medical marijuana, even as activist groups and industry sought to influence the decision-making process and its place in the medical marketplace. First, the system was privatized, then issues of use and access, not to mention the full-on legalization of recreational marijuana, dominated headlines.
In light of last week’s shocking medical marijuana report, the policy debate will certainly grow more heated here in the UK. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform stated there is “good evidence” cannabis can help alleviate the symptoms of several health conditions, including chronic pain and anxiety. According to Prof Mike Barnes, a leading consultant neurologist who contributed to the report, “We must legalise access to medical cannabis as a matter of urgency.”
In a recently co-edited series on Canadian cannabis called Waiting to Inhale, it became clear that medical marijuana was a supremely complex policy issue. Some of the questions included, but were not limited to, the tenuous balance between consumers and regulators, Canadian physicians as unwanted gatekeepers, marijuana as a measure (and potential leveller) of inequities, and the major struggles between Big Cannabis and craft cannabis.
Looking ahead, the UK can learn lessons from other countries, including Canada.
Medical marijuana has been available in Canada since 2001, after the Canadian Court of Appeal declared that sufferers from epilepsy, AIDS, cancer and other ailments had a constitutional right to light up. Prohibition of this “medicine” was, in short, unconstitutional.
The original regulation that allowed patients to access medical marijuana in Canada was enacted in 2001 and called the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). It allowed patients to possess dried marijuana flower/bud with a license issued by the government, provided that the application was signed off by a physician.
One strain of medicine was available for purchase from one single government supplier, Prairie Plant Systems, but optional licenses were available for patients to grow their own plants or to designate a grower to supply medicine to them.
The MMAR was repealed and replaced by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), enacted on Apr. 1, 2014. With this, medical marijuana was officially opened for business. And the new rules generated a craze as dozens of new entrants jumped into the marketplace.
As of Aug. 24, 2016 the MMPR was replaced with the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulation (ACMPR). These new regulations included legislation that satisfied the latest Supreme Court decision to allow patients who possess a prescription from a doctor to grow their own medicine.
During this period, certain problems have hindered the medical marijuana industry’s growth in Canada, and Britain could learn from these.
These stores and clubs are illegal because they procure and sell their products outside the federal medical marijuana system, which was overhauled and expanded last year to allow industrial-scale production of pot products that are mailed directly to licensed patients.
The pushback against dispensaries has come from national and local law enforcement as well as the Canadian Medical Cannabis Industry Association. Yet, the Cannabis Growers of Canada, a trade association representing “unlicensed” growers and dispensaries, have fought to be included at the table. Along with several other organizations, the CGC has lobbied the government to be included in the new legal regime.
As the New York Times put it, “a lobbying battle is raging between the new entrepreneurs and the licensed medical marijuana producers, who were the only ones allowed to grow and provide the plant under the old regulations. One side complains about being shut out by a politically connected cartel, while the other complains about unfair and damaging competition from those who are breaking the law.”
Medical marijuana has not approved as a medicine by Health Canada, although there is a growing body of clinical evidence regarding its pain-alleviating effects.
As such, physicians in Canada have struggled with the science and ethics of medical marijuana. At the 147th annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association in Ottawa last August, many doctors expressed serious reservations about prescribing marijuana.
Some doctors said they felt threatened or intimidated into signing prescriptions, whereas others felt as though patients were shopping for doctors. Worst of all, there were reported cases of malfeasance, where doctors charged their patients for a prescription.
The result is that the CMA remains divided on, if not outright opposed to, being the gatekeepers of medical marijuana.
With more relaxed rules around medical marijuana (along with federal legislation looking to legalize cannabis),employers are wondering whether this will grow as an issue when it comes to pre-employment or on-the-job testing.
Aside from certain industries, such as transportation, most provinces don’t have clear policies or precedents for dealing with medical marijuana.
Besides that, workplace screening of marijuana is a mediocre indicator of performance in the workplace as it doesn’t actually test for impairment. Rather, it tests for by-products excreted from the body after the drug’s been ingested.
Looking ahead, human resource departments will be forced to develop a raft of new policies.
The core problem rests with the amount of cannabis veterans are authorized to take. In 2014, Veterans Affairs doubled the amount to 10 grams per day for eligible veterans. Yet, this is twice the amount Health Canada considers safe.
An internal Health Canada document showed that more than five grams has the potential to increase risks to the cardiovascular, pulmonary and immune systems, as well as psychomotor performance and has a chance of increasing the risk of drug dependence.
Ferguson’s office could not find any evidence to support this decision to increase the threshold. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr expressed shock in March that his department lacked an “informed policy” on the use of medical cannabis, even as the number of claims by veterans for medical marijuana grew more than tenfold over the past two years.
The intersection of vaping and medical marijuana has also caused tension. As vaping has moved from a niche presence to mainstream practice, its unregulated nature – at the federal level – poses problems to policy-makers.
For example, the Ontario government exempted medical marijuana users in mid-November from a law that bans the use of e-cigarettes anywhere regular cigarettes are prohibited. These regulations were set to come into effect Jan. 1. This exemption meant medical marijuana users could vape in restaurants, at work or on playgrounds. However, Ontario’s associate health minister Dipika Damerla stated that the government would remove the exemption.
Local governments in various cities recently voted to implement a vaping bans in public spaces, with only a vape shop exemption predicated on “safety” concerns, specifically for the uninitiated e-cigarette user who doesn’t know how to install batteries in the device. But it was also predicated on the notion that buyers should be able to see what they’re getting, which is the same argument made by authorized medical cannabis users about the value of a local pot dispensary.
Marijuana remains a highly contested medicine for various scientific, political and social reasons. That is obvious.
Policy makers from government, industry leaders, and physicians will face considerable question marks. Cutting through all the haze won’t be an easy task, yet all participants, including the public, would be wise to use recent examples from Canada to light the way.
Cheech and Chong. Tony Montana. Reefer Madness. Blow. These are some of the characters and films that normally come to mind when you bring up drugs in cinema. But let’s get real, folks. It goes so much deeper.
Drug movies are both fascinating and titillating. Whether it’s the “War on Drugs” or depictions of the counterculture or portrayals of Big Pharma and the business community, all sorts of movies have been made about the illicit drug trade, pill-popping, and even more that simply feature drug use. But what are the best drug movies of the past 50 years? High Times has got some ideas. Buzzfeed has done it. And so has IMDB.
Now it’s time to offer a fresh take on the list.
Before we begin, though, let’s establish a boundary or two. What is a drug movie, one might ask? The best way to think about it has to be through heavy drug use and a focus on the drug trade, organized crime, or medical marketplace. This means that Dazed and Confused, which only has mild drug use, doesn’t make it. Neither does The Program, with James Caan. Or Rocky IV. Or the relatively new Alice in Wonderland. These films feature some drugs use and are trippy to watch, but to make this list drugs have to be absolutely central to the plot. There are other rules, too. First off, alcohol is NOT a drug. (In fact, there’ll be another alcohol list in the future.) Second, power – money, politics, sex, the ability to get others to do what you want – is NOT a drug. Finally (thank fuck), altered perceptions or dream sequences, but which are NOT based on explicit drug use, are thrown out. So, for example, Raising Arizona, The Matrix, or Fight Club have to get bumped from consideration.
Here’s my Top Ten and watch those other more standard lists go Up in Smoke.
10. Sicario (2015)
French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve crushes it. Again. With Sicario (meaning hitman), he drops us into the grisly world of drug enforcement.
I’ve been an outgoing proponent of Denis since Incendies (2010), and he’s continued to crank out brooding and thought-provoking pictures, including Enemy (2013) and Prisoners (2013). After having worked with Jake Gyllenhaal for both films in 2013, he casts Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro to headline his take on the War on Drugs’s primary theatre of war – the US/Mexico border.
Emily Blunt is once more playing Ellen Ripley. (Think Edge of Tomorrow – wait, is that what it’s called?). Really, it’s not a bad place to be. She’s steely-eyed and intrepid. And she’s posing moral questions as the focal piece of the film.
The soundtrack is hauntingly grim, the acting is understated, and the cinematography – by the incomparable Roger Deakins – is spartan. Rapid cutting is superseded by long, lingering shots. Movement gives way to stillness. A great example is one of the signature battles of the film, when a traffic jam, not a car chase, ramps up the tension. Deakins, who was burned at the Oscars once more, uses most of the arrows in his quiver to generate one of the most gorgeous films of 2015-2016. By itself, that’s enough to make this list.
9. Good Fellas (1990)
GoodFellas tells the true story of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in a star-making performance and it wasn’t till Blow (2001) and Narc (2002) that he reached such heights once more. Am I fond of Liotta? Somewhat. But not a lot. I like Liotta as much as, say, Al Gore or John Kerry or, I don’t know, porridge. In this, however, Liotta’s compelling. His Henry Hill is chaotic and flawed. He’s shallow and violent, as well as understandable and all human. At times, I find myself cheering him and pitying him simultaneously. When he suggests, “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be gangster,” I shake my head and, at the same, kind of wonder. Hmm? This is a testament to Liotta’s best and breakout performance.
In 1990, Martin Scorsese wasn’t unique in addressing organized crime. A tipping point, it seems, had been reached, and audiences that year were treated to an abundance of mafia, mob, and crime films, including: Miller’s Crossing, King of New York, The Krays, The Grifters, and, yes, The Godfather Part III. But GoodFellas stands apart and above.
As Henry is initiated into the world of guns and drugs, gambling and prostitution, he is mentored by Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway and Joe Pesci’s Tommy Devito. Both actors have been understandably lauded for their vibrant portrayals of tough guys. Eventually, Henry and his wife Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco) discover the sex and violence of organized crime is thoroughly intoxicating, just as much as the cocaine that they inhaling.
This movie – its soundtrack and cinematography, and so much more – is just as addictive.
8. The Constant Gardner (2005)
Big Pharma. Big Bad Pharma. This is the subject of John Le Carre’s novel and ultimately the movie, directed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. The story is disjointed, relies on flashbacks, and, according to Roger Ebert, is a far distance off ‘a logical exercise beginning with mystery and ending at truth…” Instead, we are pulled into a maddeningly elusive conspiracy and a fragmented narrative in which Ralph ‘Rafe’ Fiennes (i.e., Voldemort, The Red Dragon, Hades, and M) plays a widower in search of the truth. Why is his wife dead? Who is responsible?
His answers rest in the multinational pharmaceutical corporations. In particular, a company that is using Kenya’s population for fraudulent testing of a fictitious tuberculosis drug (“dypraxa”). The drug has known harmful side effects, but this is disregarded, as is the health of the African test subjects. Of course, this sort of testing is based in reality and spots like China, Estonia, Romania, Tunisia, as well as other African countries, have served as fertile testing grounds.
Fiennes, playing Justin Quayle, confronts Big Bad Pharma and suggests that the pill we take – whether for Tuberculosis or Tachycardia – is more than just an ‘an inanimate fucking object.’
If you like underdog tales, especially ones where caricatured corporations are fucked over by the ‘little guy’ (see Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Michael Clayton, etc.), this movie is for you.
7. Easy Rider (1969)
It’s difficult to begin with Easy Rider, which nearly everyone regards as one of the greatest and most influential drug movies of all time.
Disclosure: I should not have watched Easy Rider at an early age. I found it incredibly jarring. I was in grade 9 and not at all battle-hardened or street-smart. The cruel ending forced me into a funk. It challenged me to think about human nature, the nature of the United States, and served as a bewildering counterpoint to many of the testosterone-fuelled and predictably satisfying action movies (think Arnold, Jean Claude, Sylvester) to which I was exposed in the 1980s.
Wyatt and Billy didn’t deserve that! Who were they bothering? What, there’s not going to be any payback? That’s it?! Jesus Christ. Dammit.
Plot and Characters: Peter Fonda plays Captain America with the old stars and stripes on his back, helmet and bright long-barrelled motorbike. Dennis Hopper plays the sidekick, sporting pioneer trooper buckskins, long mustache and hair. They’re touring around the beautiful USA and shit happens to them: there’s a drug deal, parades, bordellos, Mardi Gras, LSD trips, and unexpected violence.
Easy Rider is a quintessential American road movie.
And the best part of the piece is Jack. This is his breakout. Vincent Canby, writing in the NY Times in 1969, was tepid, even haughty, about the film, but he sure loved Nicholson:
‘Suddenly, however, a strange thing happens. There comes on the scene a very real character and everything that has been accepted earlier as a sort of lyrical sense impression suddenly looks flat and foolish.Wyatt and Billy are in a small Southern town—in jail for having disturbed the peace of a local parade—when they meet fellow-in-mate George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a handsome, alcoholic young lawyer of good family and genially bad habits, a man whose only defense against life is a cheerful but not abject acceptance of it. As played by Nicholson, George Hanson is a marvelously realized character, who talks in a high, squeaky Southern accent and uses a phrase like “Lord have mercy!” the way another man might use a four-letter word.’
In Jack, we trust.
6. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola had a mental breakdown during shooting, as he wrote the script on the fly and had to negotiate with a hard-partying, spaced-out crew, in addition to the fickle President Marcos of the Philippines. Coppola had to fire the original leading man, Harvey Keitel. Then, Martin Sheen – the replacement – had a heart attack.
Marlon Brando showed up to film his scenes as Colonel Kurtz much like Shaq often did to start the Lakers training camp – in less than ideal shape. Coppola would also have to tread carefully with the mercurial Brando, who hadn’t learned any lines and insisted on being filmed in shadow. And Dennis Hopper. Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper, well, he was regularly stoned on marijuana, cocaine, speed and many other drugs. He was manic. Crazed. Demented. A feature of this list a second time, he didn’t have much acting to do in portraying a whacked-out photojournalist drunk on the Colonel’s Cool-aid.
The story, based loosely on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, follows a booze-fuelled, PTSD-suffering, lone-wolf agent as he journeys up a river to find a rogue soldier, Kurtz, who has slowly gone mad, raised his own army, and established his own territory in Vietnam. As this troubled agent/assassin, Willard (first Keitel, then Sheen), heads up the river, the visuals gets increasingly trippy. The imagery, in short, becomes more hallucinogenic. By the time Kurtz converses with Willard, the audience has gone way down deep into the proverbial rabbit hole.
The film is improvisational and chaotic. It’s intoxicating and brazen. And it’s a masterpiece.
5. Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013)
In the excellent 2013 movie, Dallas Buyers Club, we are exposed to valiant patient activism during the AIDS crisis in the United States. Based on the true story of AIDS-stricken Ron Woodroof, a cocaine-snorting cowboy and homophobic Texas tradesman, the film shows a shockingly thin Matthew McConaughey battle his sickness, inner demons, and the authorities in Texas Mercy Hospital, the drug industry, and government.
I’ve reviewed the film elsewhere and I’ve used it to try and communicate the complexities of medical marijuana dispensaries, in particular. I remain convinced that the movie provides a harrowing, insider overview of drug regulation and the politics of medicine in modern society.
Woodroof, who’s unhappy with his illegally purchased zidovudine, known as AZT, and on the edge of death, seeks out alternative and experimental drugs from a doctor in Mexico. Then, Ron, being the savvy entrepreneur/hustler that he is, quickly establishes a club (charging a $400 membership fee) to sell his smuggled wares, including vitamins, DDC, and Peptide T. In doing so, he runs afoul of the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration and is essentially forced to confront the existing power structure of drug regulation.
At one point in the film, he storms a town hall meeting of citizens, drug company leaders, and FDA regulators and, while still quite ill and attached to his IV bag, Ron starts finger-pointing. “People are dying. And y’all up there are afraid that we’re gonna find an alternative without you.” Inevitably, bums shift in chairs. Chests are puffed up. And murmurs echo in the room. “You see,” Ron continues, “the pharma companies pay the FDA to push their product. They don’t want to see my research. I don’t have enough cash in my pocket to make it worth their while.”
The film has strong performances, namely McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays his cross-dressing compadre. Jennifer Garner, on the cover of a recent Vanity Fair and recovering from the newest Batman’s infidelity, offers up some of her best work.
With Dallas Buyer’s Club we see the problems inherent in the relationship between big business, regulators, and interest groups. And while the film didn’t get it all right, it’s still a stimulating film and a significant reminder about the power of Big Pharma, the complicated nature of drug regulation in the 20th century, and the ways in which everyday citizens like Ron Woodroof can influence the system.
…THE END? NOPE
FOR THE TOP FOUR, VISIT http://www.alternet.org/drugs/10-greatest-drug-movies-past-50-years WHERE THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED.
SUPER SPECIAL THANKS TO MATT TODD, WHO WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN WORKING THROUGH THIS LIST WITH ME. WE DIDN’T ALWAYS AGREE, BUT SUCH IS LIFE. HE AND I WILL BE RELEASING A MODIFIED (HISTORY-LADEN) VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE IN THE NOT-TOO-DISTANT FUTURE.
HAPPY CANADA DAY!