Nodding Out on Old Cape Cod

By David Pratt

“I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm, and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness.”  – William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

“When I was doing drugs, it would be the finest stuff you can get. If I was doing opium, it would be good Thai opium. When I did smack, it would be pure, pure heroin — no street shit.“  – Keith Richards

“Most of the people that use these drugs do so without a problem,” – Neuroscientist Carl Hart

They’re dropping like flies in paradise.

The cops are all carrying Narcan, the emergency room is double staffed, every day there’s another junk bust, every other day someone’s turning blue, and crime associated with chasing the fix is rising. It’s not a unique phenomenon but to see it here, slightly off the beaten track, is hard hitting for gentler souls who escaped to this little peninsula seeking a refuge from harsher realities. In This Foul Year of Our Lord 2015 a different style of escapism raged. Damn straight. If you like sand dunes and salty air and the somnolent sedation of poppy extracts just take a trip to Ol’ Cape Cod. 

Well…okay…Cape Cod is not quite a paradise. The Cape is a skinny, scrawny spit of glacial deposit sand scrawled out into the Atlantic off the Massachusetts coast, about 80 miles from one end to the other, covered with beach towns, cranberry bogs, kettle ponds, salt marshes, swaths of woods, manicured middle class neighborhoods, multi-million dollar mansions dotting the shore, hundreds of acres of protected wild National Seashore, fried-clam indexshacks, mini golf courses, quaint little shops selling seashells and t-shirts, strips of aging motels, two indoor shopping malls, a handful of bigbox shopping centers, and liquor stores, CVS and Dunkin Donuts on every other corner. Communities ranging from Hyannis, the commercial center of a big town trying hard not to be a city, to Provincetown, long an art colony beat/hippie homosexual bohemian enclave and fishing village. Every village is a fishing village: there’s 560 miles of coastline and the damn place is only about 20 miles at its widest point with one stretch only a mile or two at its most narrow. The kind of place families like to spend their vacations, hoping to instill nostalgic memories of childhood summers by the sea.

So no, it’s not Maui or the French Riviera, but it is relatively quiet, often charming and, to the casual washashore observer, might seem divorced from the problems of the real world across the bridge. But things are changing. People are getting stabbed and shot with alarming frequency, houses and cars increasingly robbed, people mugged, amateur criminals caught red handed stealing a few hundred dollars from the corner convenience store or the brazen junkie walking into the local bank with a note demanding, “give me ALL the money!” Don’t get me wrong, despite the Chamber of Commerce’s sunny picture, there has always been crime here, it has just really amped up lately.

The Cape’s socio-economic population ranges from those shoreline, ocean-view-stealing monstrosities owned by people with names like DuPont and Koch and Kennedy (set aside and gated from the year round natives who mow their lawns and service their Landrovers); to regular middle-class people and professionals working the grind to pay their bills, their rent, their mortgage; to the homeless drunks and drug addicts, mentally ill and otherwise down on their luck or disenfranchised roaming downtown Hyannis. A lot of people over the bridge see the Cape as a rich, tourist spot (which it partially is), but there are a lot of poor people on public assistance and people with jobs struggling to make ends meet. Getting wasted is nothing new here either. The Cape has always done its share of alcohol and drug consumption during the long, cold, secluded winters and the tourist invaded, party time summer. So people have always acted like assholes and done stupid and vicious things, even on Cape Cod. And it spans all socio-economic levels. None are immune.

imagesBut it’s getting a lot worse, a lot uglier in this sunny seaside retreat and most of the problems lead right back to the junk. There’s a lot of money involved leading to inevitable disputes, and in the past few months the overdoses are getting as hard to keep up with as the violence. If it’s not a dealer getting stabbed or shot, it’s their customers dropping left and right, some turning blue, some already dead.

I never got the opiate thing. I never allowed myself to become a slave to something that would cause me physical suffering and illness if I stopped using it or compell me to acts of depravity to obtain it. But I do understand how some things can get a hold of you if you’re stupid enough to indulge in them. I’ve already failed three times to quit cigarettes, so there’s that.

There have always been junkies and there will always be junkies. There will always be a small percentage of opiate users, some of who function in the world causing barely a ripple in the social fabric. We know how this latest epidemic began. It started with the pharmaceutical companies creating ever more potent drugs and physicians over prescribing them and teenagers snagging them from their parent’s medicine cabinets. The shit was everywhere and a lot of people did it and a lot of people kept doing it until they found they kind of needed to keep doing it or their bodies would violently react. And then the pharmaceutical supply dried up and inexpensive heroin was there to fill the gap.

I could name at least a dozen people I know whose lives were either paused, ruined or ended by getting caught up in opiates for a variety of different reasons and through a variety of different scenarios. I could probably name even more who function every day under the influence without a problem as long as their supply remains steady. All types of people. Good people and bad people and most of them a mixture of both.

Criminalizing and demonizing these poor bastards as scum of the earth is simplistic, idiotic, and unproductive. Throwing them in a cage solves nothing. It doesn’t even stop them from using while they are in jail. The million dollar rehab industry doesn’t seem very effective at solving the problem either. And no, we can’t just let them die out. At least, not if they are going to keep doing it right in front of us.

How do we deal with these people? If they would just go home and nod out in their basement and stop stabbing each other and robbing gas stations and selling twenty bags to high school students and passing out on the sidewalk frothing at the mouth, we could ignore them and go about our business. But they are getting out of hand and must be dealt with. They must be weaned off of opiates systematically.

While we struggle to kill the demand we should also control the supply and take the criminal element out of this mess. I hate to say it because I am no fan of opiates, even for valid medical reasons. Heroin and pharmaceutical opiates are causing a lot of damage to a lot of people. Still, if I follow the same logic that I use to support legalizing cannabis, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion with any intellectual honesty. I am not suggesting corner Smack Shops or methadone clinics with a line stretching around the corner every Tuesday morning, but if we decriminalize it and regulate its use among addicts through medical channels, always geared to efforts to wean them off of it, then at least we can control the damage along with controlling the supply. And if junkies are allocated what they “need” through a doctor, they won’t resort to crime to pay for their next fix and they won’t be injecting god knows what into their veins.

Theoretically anyway. Similar methods have shown promise in the Netherlands and Spain. Gloucester has found some some success lately by helping addicts get treatment rather than sending them to jail. This seems to be a more logical and rational approach. There’s no question that the current approach doesn’t work and is costing society more money than the addicts themselves actually ever would. Criminalization creates the criminal and the black market and we all know how Al Capone goes.