United States

Purple Drank

By Bonnie Weinstein

When I was a teenager in the late 1950s and early ’60s, kids got after-school, part-time, or summer jobs at soda fountains and ice cream parlors where all the kids hung out. Moms took part-time jobs for extra spending money and dads worked at union jobs they would eventually retire from. But in our times, things are different. For our children today prison is a rite of passage, and their job is likely to be selling “Purple Drank”—a mixture of codeine cough syrup cut with soda—out in the streets, mostly to other kids just like themselves. And both Mom and Dad are working more than full-time—in hours, at least, if they’re working at all—even if it means they each have to have more than one job.

Today, not only is there a light-speed increase in the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, and a massive and diabolical increase in the prison population—the largest in the world, virtually 100 percent of whom are from the ranks of the most impoverished—but the administration of “justice” has never before been so blatantly corrupt and unjust.

There has been an ongoing debate regarding the long sentences of those who smoked crack cocaine vs. the much shorter sentences, if any, given to those who snorted the more fashionable among the rich-and-famous, and much more expensive, powder cocaine. The billion-dollar drug dealer, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, received a slap on the wrist for falsely claiming their product was safer and less addictive than other, less potent painkillers. This lie resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of addictions. The message is clear: the poor who fell victim to Purdue Pharma and became addicted go to jail and the wealthy profiteers who pushed the drug on them go free.

The drug-and-prison cycle

Indeed, the vast majority of young people are left with a very different set of circumstances than in their parents’ youth, both in their economic prospects for their future and their chances of staying out of jail.

An article appeared in the November 23, 2007, New York Times about the plight of youth reentering their drug-infested communities after spending time in jail themselves for drug-related offences. It was entitled “Trying to Break Cycle of Prison at Street Level,” by Solomon Moore, who wrote:

“The Fifth Ward, an east Houston neighborhood, has one of the city’s highest concentrations of former prisoners. At least 125 state parolees resettled in the neighborhood in 2006, according to the mapping studies. Their prison terms cost Texas $9 million. Mark Wright, 31, stood outside a house in the Fifth Ward recently selling drugs just weeks after completing a prison term for drug possession. Altogether, Mr. Wright said he had served 10 years for four drug-related convictions and one parole violation. ‘I was bred into this life,’ said Mr. Wright, who said he still made his living selling drugs. ‘It’s survival of the fittest out here.’ Mr. Wright said that ‘damn near 99 percent’ of his friends had served prison terms, mostly for drug possession, including his younger brother, who is currently in prison. ‘Half these dudes dropped out of junior high,’ he said. . . . ‘Some of them dropped out of elementary school. All they got is this hustle. They got no backup.’ . . .”

“Neighborhoods like Sunnyside can be found in virtually every big city in the nation. Even as violent crime statistics trend downward, incarceration rates throughout the country remain at a historic high of 750 per 100,000 residents. Each year about 650,000 prisoners are released on parole, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.”

Masses of our youth have been plunged into a virtually inescapable cycle of drug use and sales to barely keep from starving and to pay for their acquired addiction. This results in long years of incarceration without rehabilitation—an entirely different story than that of the multibillion-dollar drug pushers like Purdue Pharma. In a May 11, 2007, Times article, “Narcotic Maker Guilty of Deceit Over Marketing,” Barry Meier wrote:

“The company, Purdue Pharma, agreed to pay $600 million in fines and other payments to resolve the criminal charge of ‘misbranding’ the product, one of the largest amounts ever paid by a drug company in such a case. The three executives, including its president and its top lawyer, also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of misbranding the drug. Together, they agreed to pay $34.5 million in fines . . ..

“Purdue Pharma, based in Stamford, Conn., heavily promoted OxyContin to doctors like general practitioners, who often had little training in treating serious pain or in recognizing signs of drug abuse. But experienced drug abusers and novices, including teenagers, soon discovered that chewing an OxyContin tablet—or crushing one and then snorting the powder, or injecting it with a needle—produced a high as powerful as heroin . . .. By the year 2000, parts of the United States, particularly rural areas, began to see soaring rates of addiction and crime related to use of the drug.”

How billionaire drug pushers get out of jail time

The executives from Perdue Pharma got no jail time at all. The $634.5 million they paid in fines and payments was a drop in the bucket for a company whose revenue tops a billion dollars a year. Meanwhile, the average seller of Purple Drank or marijuana will be appointed an insanely busy public defender in charge of hundreds of cases, and will almost certainly end up with a plea bargain resulting in both jail time and years of probation or parole.

Things go differently for billion-dollar corporate executives who make really big bucks pushing drugs. In fact, The Timesof December 28, 2007, featured an article entitled “Under Attack, Drug Maker Turned to Giuliani for Help,” by Barry Meier and Eric Lipton. According to the writers, not only could the Purdue executives afford to hire high-powered attorneys, but they also hired presidential hopeful, attorney, and self-proclaimed 9/11 hero Rudolph Giuliani to help make sure they wouldn’t get any jail time.

“A former top federal prosecutor, Mr. Giuliani participated in two meetings between Purdue officials and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency investigating the company. Giuliani Partners took on the job of monitoring security improvements at company facilities making OxyContin, an issue of concern to the D.E.A.

“As a celebrity, Mr. Giuliani helped the company win several public relations battles, playing a role in an effort by Purdue to persuade an influential Pennsylvania congressman, Curt Weldon, not to blame it for OxyContin abuse.

“Giuliani Partners would not say how much Purdue had paid it, but one consultant to the drug maker estimated that Mr. Giuliani’s firm had, in some years, earned several million dollars from the account . . ..

“Giuliani Partners became involved in every aspect of the company’s problems, from the ballooning investigation by Mr. Brownlee [of the D.E.A.] to repairing its battered image. Mr. Giuliani personally took on some tasks, but a half-dozen members of his firm, including Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, were also involved.”

But as hard as Giuliani tried, according to the same article,

“Early last year . . . Mr. Brownlee told Purdue that he was prepared to indict it and three top executives, including Mr. Udell, the lawyer. The company then handed Mr. Giuliani his most crucial assignment, to talk Mr. Brownlee down . . .. Between June and October 2006, Mr. Giuliani met or spoke with the prosecutor on six occasions. During those conversations, Mr. Giuliani was cordial but pointed in arguing against what he felt were flaws in the case . . .. In October 2006, Mr. Brownlee told Mr. Giuliani and Purdue that he expected to ask for a grand jury indictment by the end of the month. Plea discussions ensued and Mr. Brownlee ultimately agreed that the three executives would not have to do jail time.”

So, Purdue Pharma, thanks to Giuliani, pays a relatively small fee (out of the billions it has and continues to earn from sales of OxyContin) for the deaths and addictions it has caused and still causes, and their top executives remain free and richly employed while those who became addicted to OxyContin are in many cases still rotting in jail. Or they have been returned to the dismal streets, without rehabilitation programs, with not just the monkey of drug addiction on their backs but the stigma of “crime convictions” and prison time attached to their names forever! What great credentials for job hunting!

The capitalist future is stacked against the young and the poor

Drug rehabilitation programs for the poor—all around the country—are being slashed to bits and replaced with more and longer jail sentences. Our youth are trying to survive in occupied, poverty- and crime-ridden police territory. Their communities and schools not only have deteriorated, becoming polluted and decrepit, but also are police occupied. Gang injunctions prohibit freedom of movement of suspected “gang members” whether they are traveling to their jobs or to their homes during certain hours. Some communities have a feeling of lockdown after midnight, when the only people on the streets are the police.

The police routinely keep lists and photos of those they suspect of gang membership—or of anything—up on the walls of the precinct so that they can keep track of them and catch them when and as often as they can. To those in the community under scrutiny, it seems everyone who is about to come of age automatically becomes suspect. Piled upon that, even when, with great diligence, one is fortunate enough to get a job—it will certainly be a second- or third-tier-level job because that is all our modern times has to offer.

If you’re poor, you get one chance—if you’re lucky

When I say that drug rehabilitation programs are being slashed, I mean the ones that are free to the victims of both addiction and poverty. There are plenty of rehab programs available for a price—an extremely high price, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars. Some employer healthcare plans cover such treatment to a greater or (more often) lesser extent.

A friend who is alcoholic and worked for a big supermarket here in San Francisco was sent to a three-month rehab program away in the countryside twice, when caught drinking on the job. His stay and all medications were completely covered and would have cost close to $30,000 were they not covered. Many of these benefits have been lost since my friend took advantage of his rehab opportunity and the chance to keep his job. His company gave him two chances. In the world of free residential treatment you are a very lucky exception to get even one chance at an in-house recovery program, and only a little more likely to get into a day-treatment program—also on the budget chopping block.

Very few of those addicted to OxyContin or other drugs have jobs, let alone jobs with drug-rehab benefits. Also, there are drug dealers who do not use drugs themselves, yet still end up in jail, with a police record, doomed to continue selling drugs to survive. They deal because, like those who have become addicted, there are no other viable, life-supporting jobs out there for them. Those who sell but don’t use are the rare exceptions, and statistics show that eventually even they succumb.

Adult workers also stuck in an ever-tightening bind

And this problem is getting worse. Some kids are seeing their own parents succumb to drug addiction. Some parents are even forced to compete for the same low-paying jobs—just ask the thousands of un- and-underemployed former autoworkers in Detroit! Detroit now has a 28 percent poverty rate—the highest of any city in the country! And drug use is rising among adults. According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report, “Youth Drug Use Continues Downward Slide Older Adult Rates of Use Increase,” “Among adults aged 50 to 59, the rate of current illicit drug use increased from 2.7 percent to 4.4 percent between 2002 and 2005, reflecting the aging into this age group—the baby boom cohort.”

Instead of expanding drug rehabilitation programs and making them available to everyone who needs them free of charge; instead of preventing the conditions that lead our children to choose hopeless and harmful solutions to their problems; instead of pouring money into our schools, into our children’s housing, into healthcare—our government and its corporate rulers and political hacks are plunging the world into never-ending war and chaos just to further their economic hegemony over the planet. And now they’re even stooping to push addictive drugs directly, as in the case of Purdue Pharma, Mr. Giuliani, and their very profitable drug. They legitimize anything—drug pushing, war, torture, mass incarceration—that will aid them in raking in huge windfall profits. This is the conscience of the capitalist, private-profit-driven system.

The income gap exposing the myth of the middle class

The statistics are astounding. According to another Times article that appeared December 15, 2007, entitled, “Report Says That the Rich Are Getting Richer Faster, Much Faster,” by David Cay Johnston:

“The increase in incomes of the top one percent of Americans from 2003 to 2005 exceeded the total income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans, data in a new report by the Congressional Budget Office shows.

“The poorest fifth of households had total income of $383.4 billion in 2005, while just the increase in income for the top 1 percent came to $524.8 billion, a figure 37 percent higher.

“The total income of the top 1.1 million households was $1.8 trillion, or 18.1 percent of the total income of all Americans, up from 14.3 percent of all income in 2003. The total 2005 income of the three million individual Americans at the top was roughly equal to that of the bottom 166 million Americans, analysis of the report showed.”

This is not going unnoticed! The problem is, people don’t know what to do about it. After all, this report, according to the article, “is the latest to document the growing concentration of income at the top, a trend that President Bush said last January had been under way for more than 25 years.” And, all during this time, the working class has seen its union representation diminish from around 38 percent of the workforce to around seven percent today. The real squeeze is just beginning to affect workers who were led to believe they were part of the “middle class.”

Even my generation of workers, who had paid off their home loans, was convinced to take out new loans to pay for renovation and repair based on the optimistic prediction of an ever-increasing real estate market and a never-ending supply of easy credit. Now they are faced with shrinking housing prices that will not cover the costs of the new loans they are now stuck with.

Youth and poverty

But the worst victims are the young. In an Op-Ed article for The Times of December 22, 2007, entitled “Nightmare Before Christmas,” columnist Bob Herbert wrote:

“A study released last month by the Pew Charitable Trusts noted that ‘for most Americans, seeing that one’s children are better off than oneself is the essence of living the American dream.’ But for the past 40 years, men in their 30s, prime family-raising age, have found it difficult to outdistance their dads economically.

“As the Pew study put it: ‘Earnings of men in their 30s have remained surprisingly flat over the past four decades.’ Family incomes have improved during that time largely because of the wholesale entrance of women into the work force.

“For the very wealthy, of course, it’s been a different story. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent rose 228 percent from 1979 through 2005.

“What seems to be happening now is that working Americans, and that includes the middle class, have exhausted much of their capacity to tread water. Wives and mothers are already working. Mortgages have been refinanced and tremendous amounts of home equity drained. And families have taken on debt loads—for cars, for college tuition, for medical treatment—that would buckle the knees of the strongest pack animals.

“According to Demos, a policy research group in New York, ‘American families are using credit cards to bridge the gaps created by stagnant wages and higher costs of living.’ Americans owe nearly $900 billion on their credit cards.

“We’re running out of smoke and mirrors. The fundamental problem, the problem that is destroying the dream, is the extreme inequality pounded into the system by the corporate crowd and its handmaidens in government.”

And for black youth, the problems are even worse. According to another Herbert piece in The Times of March 15, 2007, entitled, “The Danger Zone,”

“...most black men do not go to college. In big cities, more than half do not even finish high school.

“Their employment histories are gruesome. Over the past few years, the percentage of black male high school graduates in their 20s who were jobless (including those who abandoned all efforts to find a job) has ranged from well over a third to roughly 50 percent. Those are the kinds of statistics you get during a depression.

“For dropouts, the rates of joblessness are staggering. For black males who left high school without a diploma, the real jobless rate at various times over the past few years has ranged from 59 percent to a breathtaking 72 percent.

“‘Seventy-two percent jobless!’ said Senator Charles Schumer, chairman of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, which held a hearing last week on joblessness among black men. ‘This compares to 29 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts.’”

Ingredients for change

So, what we have is a tinderbox ready to explode. These young people do not have homes with equity, nor savings accounts, nor even credit cards. They must fly by the seat of their pants—either they have the cash or they don’t. Their parents are a paycheck away from being in the same predicament themselves. Very few working people with children and grandchildren are debt-free or have savings accounts with anything substantial in them.

At the same time, there have been virtually no victories for the working class. Union bureaucrats have been notoriously in bed with the bosses. And workers are hanging onto their jobs like there’s no tomorrow—and there isn’t! This reality will hit home sooner than later.

When it does, the whole playing field will change. And the working class will have their chance to come up to bat. The questions that must be answered in the affirmative are: Will team United Working Class realize how strong it can be? Will the players be able to develop real team loyalty? Will each team member dedicate him/herself to the well being of the team and every other member? Will they be led by leaders of their own democratic choosing and from their own ranks who understand that their power lies in unity and solidarity with one another? Will they let nothing divide them or lead them astray from their goal of victory for the whole team?

If we can answer yes to these questions we’ll see a ballgame as has never been played before. Team United Working Class will have billions of hitters coming up to bat and team Capitalist Despotism will have just one-tenth of one percent of that. I sure like those odds!