Why Are Heroin, Cocaine and Other Drugs Really Illegal? We Must Never Forget the Answers

Apr 01 2016

Why Are Heroin, Cocaine and Other Drugs Really Illegal? We Must Never Forget the Answers

April 4th, 2016

Looking out at the trail of devastation and death that the heroin epidemic has left in its wake, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago one could purchase the drug from a Sears catalogue.

Heroin was created by German chemists during the late 1890s and marketed through Bayer, the company best known for selling aspirin. For decades, suburban housewives could peruse pages of flashy advertisements for Bayer Heroin, the cure for sore throats, coughs, headaches, diarrhea, stress and menopause. In fact, until recently the percentage of Americans using opium-derived medicine was higher at the turn of the 20th century than at any other time in history.

The majority of illicit drugs we see today were once legal, popular and used for medicinal purposes. Cocaine made its debut in toothache drops marketed to children. Cannabis was recognized for its ability to relieve pain and nausea long before it became associated with youthful vagrancy.

As the world grapples with the fallout from the War on Drugs—and heads towards UNGASS 2016, a possible opportunity to put things right—it’s important to know the history of these drugs and their journey from medicine to menace. We didn’t suddenly discover that they were far more addictive or dangerous than other medicines. In fact, the reasons that drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana and others are illegal today have far more to do with economics and cultural prejudice than with addiction.

Heroin was the first to fall from pharmaceutical darling to a demonized, black-market street drug. Long used as a cure for aches and pains, it wasn’t until Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroads and mines that opium-based products such as heroin were perceived as dangerous. American settlers were not happy with the Chinese arrivals, who brought with them a cultural tradition of smoking opium for relaxation in the evenings. The settlers accused the Chinese of “taking our jobs,” and economic resentment morphed into rumors of Chinese men luring white women into opium dens and getting them addicted. Rumors turned to fear, which turned to hysteria, which politicians seized upon. In 1875 California passed the first anti-opium law, enforced by raids on Chinese opium dens. Other states soon followed. The first federal law regulating heroin was the Harrison Act of 1914, which eventually led to its criminalization.

Cocaine was criminalized for similar reasons, only this time the backlash was directed against black Americans. After the Civil War, economic resentment simmered over the freed slaves gaining a foothold in the economy. White Southerners grumbled about black men “forgetting their place,” and fears spread about a drug some of them smoked, which was rumored to incite them to violence. In the early 1900s New Orleans became the first city to slap down laws against cocaine use and the trend quickly spread, dovetailing with efforts in Latin America to criminalize the coca leaf, an ingredient in cocaine, which was used for religious purposes among indigenous populations.

Marijuana was next in the firing line. During the 1920s, tensions sprang up in the South over the influx of Mexican immigrants who worked for low wages. By the 1930s, the Great Depression had bred panic among people desperate for work and they directed their angst towards immigrants. The media began propagating stories about Mexicans and their mysterious drug, marijuana. The first national law criminalizing marijuana, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, passed thanks to a strong push from Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who referred to marijuana as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

While such claims of marijuana inducing violence may sound ridiculous to those of us who know marijuana as a drug that does precisely the opposite, it goes to show that the criminalization of drugs has little to do with relative risk or danger. Instead, the main impetus for criminalization is fear over certain groups seen as an economic or cultural threat to established America. Recognizing this fact does not mean ignoring or minimizing the very real harm that drugs can cause.

Most illicit drugs carry risks and serious potential for problematic use. But so does glue. So do gasoline, cough syrup, shoe polish, paint thinner, nail polish remover, cleaning fluids, spray paint, whipped cream cans, vanilla extract, mouthwash, nutmeg, prescription pills and countless other household items that are not only addictive, but potentially fatal if misused.

Scientists have now demonstrated that illicit drugs are pharmacologically equivalent to any other medicines on the market. We could easily declare OxyContin or Adderall illegal tomorrow, demonize the drugs and the people who use them, and in a few decades no one would remember that those street pills were once marketed by pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by doctors.

It was President Nixon who took these economic fears that had driven drug criminalization and turned them into masterful political opportunity. Elected shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nixon faced a large population of Americans who were fearful and angry about these reforms. A wily man, President Nixon knew that one of the best ways to gain political support was to turn the majority of voters against the minority using fear, false narrative, and the idea of moral or cultural inferiority. One of his first acts as president was to declare a War on Drugs despite the fact that drug use was not significantly worse than at any other time in history.

John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon, captured the rationale behind the War on Drugs in an interview with reporter Dan Baum: “The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar Left and black people…We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Witnessing the effectiveness of Nixon’s War on Drugs, other presidents in both political parties took up the mantle. Using an unparalleled influence over the media, President Reagan launched a period of mass hysteria over the drug du jour, which during the 1980s was crack cocaine.

Although studies showed white and black people using crack cocaine at similar rates, the media painted crack users as a black, poor, and urban. In less than a decade the US implemented some of the most draconian anti-drug laws in the world, all aimed squarely at the “crack-fiends,” the mothers of “crack-babies,” and others who were deemed criminal and worthy only of prison. The trend continued with George Bush and later Bill Clinton, who signed an omnibus crime bill in 1994 that included mandatory minimum sentences and federal three-strikes laws.

The US prison population swelled from 500,000 people behind bars in 1980 to 2.2 million by 2010—all with no change in the rates of crime or drug use. Such a hike was made possible by gutting social programs and reallocating the money towards law enforcement through a variety of incentivizing programs, including generous government grants, civil asset forfeitures, and donations of military equipment. Politicians benefited immensely, sweeping up votes with their “tough on crime” rhetoric and assurance that drug use was the result of moral bankruptcy.

Scientists have now confirmed that there is no such thing as a “crack baby,” only babies who are undernourished due to poverty, and crack cocaine is no different than its powdered form—except that smoking any drug creates a faster, stronger high than snorting it. But science and fact have little hold in a system driven by fear. Despite some recent criminal justice reforms, today we still warehouse more prisoners than any country in the world, mostly for drugs. We still arrest 1.5 million people a year for marijuana, 90 percent just for possession. Law enforcement has become so addicted to drug grants and drug money that it is hard to imagine scaling back to the pre-Reagan days. And every time a new drug is introduced, whether it be bath salts, K2, or even vaping, the old impulse to criminalize first, investigate later, still reigns supreme.

We have seen some bipartisan reforms lately and calls for treatment over incarceration. However these changes are hardly a cause to celebrate, not only because they barely scratch at the hide of the beast we have created, but also because we have not learned from our history.

Read more from The Influence:

The Anatomy of a Heroin Relapse

How they Myth of the “Addicted” Baby Hurts Newborns and Moms

Let’s Tear Apart This Repugnant Statement About Harm Reduction

…and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Today, as always, the decisions over whether to help or imprison people who use drugs has more to do with the perceived users than with the drugs themselves. Drugs were legal as long as white, suburban housewives were using them to treat menopause. It was not until drugs became seen as the vice of poor or immigrant minorities that we decided to tackle the issue with guns, tanks and prison bars. We cracked down, criminalized and demonized the drugs—and by extension, the people who used them.

The calls for mercy and reform of today are happening at a time when drugs are once again perceived to be creeping into those suburban neighborhoods. Suddenly people in power have a family member with a pill addiction and white mothers across the land are weeping over the loss of their children. And while calls for treatment over incarceration may benefit all races (though not equally), by holding up stories of white straight-A students as reasons why we should go easy on drug addiction, we are using the same “deserving” vs. “undeserving” narrative that created the War on Drugs in the first place.

Without addressing the root cause of drug criminalization, it will take very little to turn back the narrative towards fearing, blaming and locking up whatever new minority we decide we don’t like.

Change will not be easy. All over the nation people are still insisting that the drug war is not about race. But acknowledging the true history of the drug war is not the same as declaring that people of color who use drugs are the only people who matter. We can create a system to address the health consequences of addiction without leaving out or over-emphasizing any particular group, and we can do that while still acknowledging the true roots of racism in the drug war and taking steps to prevent history repeating itself.

The first step is to admit that our current drug laws are not grounded in science and public health, but in racial and ethnic prejudices driven by economic and cultural fear. Science has long debunked the false narrative that illicit drugs are more addictive than medicines or common household items. We are starting to understand the social and environmental contexts that can make people more vulnerable to addiction.

The second step is to “just say no” to the politics of hatred and fear. Anyone who doubts the political effectiveness of basing an entire political career on vitriol against other races or religions need look no further than our current presidential race. It will take strong efforts from both parties to fight back against a political strategy that is still effective today.

Third, we need to caution against the hysteria that so often erupts every time a new drug appears of the scene. If criminalization comes up for discussion, we should place the burden of proof on the party who wants to criminalize. Science and fact, not political rhetoric, should be the basis for deciding how to address each new challenge appropriately.

We have to do these things before we can even begin to undo the damage caused by mass incarceration, cartel violence and widespread addiction. Without acknowledging our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Tessie Castillo is the communications and advocacy coordinator of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC): @NCHarmReduction. Her last piece for The Influence was How to Talk to White People About Race in the Drug War, in Four Simple Steps.

  • Joe Minella

    Thank you, Tessie for this excellent summation of the sordid history of the drug war. What bothers me is that we’ve known this stuff since forever but the evil just continues. Lies are repeated, debunked, repeated again. Politicians rarely give satisfactory responses to questions about drug policy. The old line about power never ceding an inch without overwhelming pressure applies here. Half of the population remains snookered about drug policy after 100 years of lies. Reefer madness will outlive the laws. The DEA has been subsumed into the intelligence/defense apparatus and the “war on terror”, becoming further entrenched. Cops and prisons are addicted to the money. The pace of marijuana reform is somewhat hopeful but, goddammit, we have a long, long, long way to go.

  • Drug addicts and their defenders must also take some responsibility. For years they told us that they were powerless to the lure of drugs and the only solution was to keep drugs out of the country at all costs. (Just visit your local DARE program and see for yourself.) They now claim that the word ‘addict’ is hate speech as a way to avoid having to take any responsibility for previous lies – ironically exactly what their religion requires – “We pray to the god of our understanding and at least one person in the fellowship to forgive us for the sins we committed while suffering from our addiction.” Everyone had a hand in this including black congressional leadership – see Carl Hart’s High Price. It wasn’t some ‘old white man’ conspiracy. Tempting as that might be to believe – seems we cannot resist.

    • Maurice Dutton

      Yes I agree. But it was the old chestnut that the authorities were in power, had the education and so knew best. So you might get listened to but God forbid if they took any of it on board. That would be validating someone they had decoded needed guidance with their lives. Its a bit catch 22.

  • crazybutnotwrong

    So many reasons for keeping the status quo, I think the biggest is their livelihoods are at stake

    • Maurice Dutton

      Yes Mister notwrong, when you factor in all the ancillary services such as parole, drug counselling, customs, the DEA etc if they just decriminalised these services would shrink allowing funding for job creation projects or something education wise.

      • crazybutnotwrong


        • Maurice Dutton

          I apologise !!!

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  • Lenny Singleton

    I think we should be treating drug addiction as a health issue vs. a criminal issue. The way we do it is costing us horribly both financially and in overall morale. We created a war on our own people in the 80’s and 90’s with
    the epidemic of crack cocaine on African Americans. At that time the name of the game was mass incarceration and harsher sentencing and we called it a war on drugs – a war on our own people. There have been many casualties in that war. We need to reevaluate many of those harsher sentences. Especially, as now it is scientifically proven that harsher drugs like crack cocaine high-jack the brain. Addiction is now considered a disease of the brain. Let me give you just one example – just one of literally thousands – of someone who should have their sentence re-evaluated — Lenny Singleton (shown in the profile pic).

    Lenny committed 8 “grab & dash” robberies in a 7 day period while high on alcohol and crack cocaine to fund his crack addiction. He did not have a gun. He did not kill anyone. In fact, no one was physically injured and not one person filed against him as a “victim.” He stole a total of less than $550 and these were his first felonies. He wasn’t part of a gang or a habitual criminal. He earned a college degree and served in our Navy before he allowed his addiction to destroy his life. What he needed was some help with his addiction.

    What he got was 2 Life Sentences plus 100 years with no chance of parole. The judge, without any explanation to Lenny or the courtroom as documented by his court transcripts, sentenced Lenny to more time than repeat violent
    offenders, rapists, child molesters, and murderers. Lenny would be the first to tell you that he needed to do some time, but he didn’t deserve to have his life completely taken away from him. Murderers will walk free while Lenny
    remains in prison.

    Lenny, while incarcerated these past 20+ years, has not wasted his time or let the time do him. He works every business day in a position of authority, he lives in the Honor’s Dorm, he takes every available class for self-improvement offered, and in his spare time he has co-authored and published a book to help others headed down the same path called, “Love Conquers All,” available now on Amazon. During the entire 20+ years he has been in prison, he has not received a single infraction for anything – very rare for lifers. He is deserving of a second

    To keep Lenny behind bars for the rest of his life will cost taxpayers well over a million dollars – for stealing less than $550 in crimes where no one was physically injured. This makes absolutely no sense on any level. And smarter sentencing in Lenny’s case would be a reduction of cost to the American taxpayer. His case should be reconsidered. That million plus dollars would be better spent on rehabilitation services or preventative education or rebuilding infrastructures – anything rather than keeping 1 man who stole less than $550 in crimes where no one was physically injured behind bars for the rest of his life.

    Please learn more about Lenny and sign his petition at http://www.justice4lenny.org. Justice will not have been served if Lenny dies in prison.

    • duck

      as soon as people stop making such a big deal out of drugs people will start doing it more responsibly.

  • Maurice Dutton

    Yes the same thing happened with me. I advocate harm reduction & open drug policies & the American Government has mounted some type of dirty tricks campaign that relatives of mine living in Kentucky have written to me about. Its the old adage that drugs are bad so I must be bad but they always fail to do their home work with this campaign. My wife of thirty years told me they would come after me & you should be aware that I am a pacifist. I pose no threat to any one other than the people whose job it is to enforce these archaic laws. But change is coming & I predict that within five years there will be a massive shift to decriminalise simply because the financial model of incarceration cannot be sustained.

    • crazybutnotwrong

      livelihoods of a great big chunk of the population depends on the status quo. A chunk that has most of the power and respect

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  • Richelle Diamond

    Such a poignant article. Thank you so much for sharing. It must be questioned that liquor and nicotine and prescription drugs are legal and socially so much more acceptable than “illegal narcotics”. They are taxed. And users of substances that fall beyond the realm of legal become criminalized and stigmatized. Dealers, pushers and people caught with possession are put into jail. Jails have “drug free” ranges where prisoners can volunteer to stay in order to prove they are drug free and get earlier parole. So we jail people for drugs and then access within this “rehabilitation” and/or “punishment” period is available at a time where escapism and addiction are further paired with accessible drugs. Decriminalization of drug use would reduce stigma, allow for less dangerous drugs (as they wouldn’t be cut with unknown substances by dealers), reduce harm and lessen stays in overpacked and counterproductive jails. A lot of work to be done. But social stigma is a first area to be tackled.

  • sudon’t

    “Recognizing this fact does not mean ignoring or minimizing the very real harm that drugs can cause.”

    The thing is, though, most harms associated with drugs are caused directly or indirectly by prohibition – not the drugs themselves.

    • Martine

      Exactly. If you want to criminalize everything that “causes harm” then you should criminalize eating if you are not hungry, alcohol, smoking, cell phones, sedentary lifestyles, dogs and cats that cause allergy, flowers( which cause allergy), and cars which kill more people then anything else.

      • sudon’t

        Attempts have already been made in these areas. They’ve used taxation as a form of coercion on foods, tobacco and alcohol. Most of the others you mention are regulated in one way or another. All these unconstitutional actions can be taken under the rubric of “health and safety”, which was granted this power in order to be able to enforce quarantines. As always, once granted a power, that power is repurposed to other uses.
        The government shouldn’t be in the business of regulating lifestyles, or personal “moral” choices. And ultimately, it is about morality, not “health and safety”. That’s why cyanide and arsenic can be bought legally, while marijuana and LSD cannot.

  • David Martin

    Great article. It shines a big spotlight on the systemic hypocrisy and offers intelligent alternatives. IMO one of our biggest challenges is reeducating the public about the meaning and operative value of “unalienable” & “inalienable” rights that Jefferson wrote came from God and before government, so in my understanding of Originalist legal theory the government has no power to prohibit cannabis unless they prohibit God. Scalia was one Originalisms most fervent advocates. Republicans claiming to be constitutional conservatives and still fight rear guard actions to keep control of cannabis prohibition represent the racist fascist wing of the Republican party. In Ohio they plan to let us buy it & pay taxes on it but not grow it or smoke it. How’s that for government intrusion into our lives.

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  • massive

    Great piece. I read Chasing The Scream by Johan Hari and found it to be eye opening. I think we need to make them all legal and lower drinking age to 18 like the rest of the Civilized World does. Prohibition along with AA and its ridiculous 12 steps have permeated our culture, our media, our medicine, our mental health and country. It has single offhandedly changed the way Americans look at not only drugs, but eating and sex. Calling these simple human behaviors addiction, which they of course are not. They are black & white thinkers, small minded and Im am almost ready to leave my country and go live where people are saner. Grown responsible adults, can’t even relax and enjoy a glass of wine on the beach to wacth the sunset. We can’t take our dogs on the beach ( even on a lease) there. We cant throw a football and in all parks in CULVER CITY, you cant even ride your bike. No wonder we are the way we are.

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  • Leigh Anonymous

    I like how people in the comments mention “smoking” as being an acceptable drug as opposed to the outlawed “narcotics”. I live in Australia and I beleive they way in which smokers are treated in our country is the next big phase in the political corruption of drug laws. As a smoker in Australia now, we are treated like a minority that should be cleansed from society as a whole. A new war that does not seem to be going away until the government has no smokers in the entire of Australia… It really is getting bad. Thanks to EXTREME anti smoking campains and lobbying, a smoker is now frowned apon, mocked and even abused in public just for smoking a cigarrete, a life choice that is theirs to make and has nothing to do with the opinions of anybody else as far as I am concerned.

    In the beginning we saw it banned in pubs, clubs and other social hangouts as it was I beleive in most off the world at large, ok fair enough. Then however we saw it taken to the next step, far deeper into the realms of insanity and the Governments dillusion that they have the right to regulate an individuals life choices or morality. Every packet of smokes sold in Australia now has to be branded in a specially designed Australian Government package. There was a commitee that were enlisted to design the new packets and they were under instruction to make it as ugly, deterrring and horrifying to smokers that it would deter them from their habbit. So they came up with “the ugliest colour green they could find”, and terrible looking pictures of people dying in hospital, eyes with diseases, enlarged cancers on the throat etc. Did this deter us smokers? Not at all…

    So did this packet re-branding do anything to effect the smokers? Well yes, what it did was promote the publics hatred of smokers. Why? Well with all packets labelled exactly the same except for the barand and type printed in the same white font on every packet, the poor clerk at the store now has an incredibly diffficult time finding the packet at the request of the smoker. Unless the store clerk has been working there a long time and has a good enough memory to know where every packet sits on the shelf, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the different packets. This creates frustration and impatience in all the custmoers in line behind the smoker while the clerk stumbles around looking for the product. I have heard customers yell out all kinds of abuse in impatience like “If you didnt smoke I would be done by now”, “Just quit you #@%^&#!$ your holding us all up” etc. Is this really a good thing for society? To have directed hatred toward a group of individuals who made a life choice and have the added benefit of being addicted to this product? This is the worst way possible a government could chose to deal with this. As an australian, I find it an embarrasment…

    So after this did nothing to deter the smokers from smoking (mainly because addiction and choice are just that desptite what package they are sold to us in), the government came up with the further notion that they could deter smokers by charging them ever increasing prices until they simply could not afford them anymore. You dont have to be a genius to figure out that this is only going to create a larger amount of poverty within our public, while increasing the australian tax pool so that money ends up god only knows where (nowhere useful one assumes). A packet of smokes in Australia now ranges from roughly $28 – $35 AUD for a pack of 25 smokes ($21.50-$27 USD) with all that extra money going straight into the tax pool. They dont even give any of that tax money to the cigarrete companies to print the government packages, no they have to print them at their own cost if they wish to sell their product in Australia. So are there less smokers in Australia now? No. Are there more poor people in Australia now? Yes.

    As smokers, we contribute more to the Australian Budget than ANY other group of people and are usually the lower paid individuals. Society should not be mocking us, they should be sending us thankyou cards for our incredibly large contribution to the Australian tax pool which allows further spending on such neccisary public resources (like inflation of speed cameras with ridiculous fines and a smaller allowance for over the speed limit in most countries of only 5km/hour… another story). Results are results. No smokers have been deterred from smoking due to these ever increasing prices, they will forego any form of comfort spending in order to support their ADDICTION.

    We have seen in recent years the new product on the market that can aid and greatly benefit smokers in quitting or reducing their addiction, Vapeing. This is great news! An alternative to smoking that would save australians A LOT of money! So what is our government stance on these great new devices to aid smokers? Well for the most part they are banned. Our geniuses in power have made so many dfifferent regulations regarding these devices and they are different in every state! for example, in WA I am not allowed to buy or sell a vape device. I can however legally use one??? If however I want to use nicotine in my vape, I cant buy it from within Australia, I have to buy it from New Zealand (and vice versa in NZ laws). We are only allowed to order products containing nicotine four time a year, so if you dont order enough for a 3 month supply or purchase flavors you dont like, then too bad you have to wait until the 3 months is up to order more basically. In other states it gets even worse where you can buy and sell vapes, but inporting or purchasing nicotine is strictly forbidden! One can only imagine this is a plot to keep the smokers paying the exuberent amount of taxes on every packet sold.

    These solutions are ridiculous and seem to be dreamt up either by madmen or simply profiteers. The division of society and the change of attitude toward smokers is an outrage. This I feel is the blueprint for all future bans on drugs and the “drug war” that will never end for political and greed driven reasons. Do not allow this to happen in your country for any substance or group of people. It is a disgrace toward humantity and freedom of choice.

  • Jay

    The painful truth was that by America criminalising certain “ethnic group” drugs almost immediately after freeing slaves was that it was a way to keep the slave movement alive.
    By scapegoating these drugs in certain ethnic minority dominated areas, they could target and imprison ethnic minorities for years of legal slavery.
    The fact that the most destructive drug alcohol could not be criminalised due to mainly white america outburst meant that the narcotic bureau would no longer have a main objective.
    They used this as a platform to not only criminalise medicines stocked in then pharmacies for treatment of mainly white Americans but also to target minorities so they could place them as they saw it, back in their place, as slaves to white america.
    Now, let us not forget culling.
    The world is growing too fast mainly in poor African and Asian countries and politicians all over the world recognise the need for culling.
    Their tactical war on drugs opened a predictable black market.
    Being competitive like any other business, competition often leads to violence and thus mass murders. This is a win win for those in power not only has culling taken place, but they can further arrest and cull those involved.
    This war would never stop as it is highly unproductive for what they have already created and the amount being made by having such establishments.
    Do not forget that prisons are privately owned and is BIG business. Those incarcerated work for nothing-even more money thus leaving those in charge with very large bellies.
    More money is pushed into prisons than education. The price of education is soaring ensuring the poor can’t progress past a certain point. Forcing them into taking drugs or selling as a way to feed mouths. Then arrest and incarcerate them for slavery labour.
    As far as those in power are concerned, this suits them very well and unless a new scapegoat is found, then not much will change. Even if one is found, it will continue as it has to. This is a major driving force that no government would allow to be dismantled.

  • Bill Sherman

    i wish the article had mentioned Portugal where all drugs were legalized and drug use actually went down probably because the temptation for forbidden fruit was no longer there.

  • Michael White

    Silly questions. Drugs are murder, suicide. It always was like that, the biggest earnings on murders and drugs, including.

    I was addicted, nothing helped me except intervention. Read about this on the Internet if you have the same problems. For example here http://theoakstreatment.com/intervention/models/