In 2018, I was commissioned by Civic Ensemble of Ithaca, New York to help devise and write a new play based on their ReEntry Theatre Program — a free arts initiative for people who've experienced incarceration and/or drug rehabilitation. The program participants developed the raw material through theatre games and writing exercises, which I then took and transformed into a full-length script.
Streets Like This originally ran for 3 sold out performances in May 2018, featuring a cast of program participants, whose personal stories of addiction and incarceration inspired the script. The people involved in this show from the start have gone on to make some tremendous policy changes for social services and criminal justice reform in Tompkins County, New York, and decided to remount the show again this spring.
Then the COVID-19 outbreak happened.
But the cast and company got together one last time and filmed their production without an audience. It's streaming now for free between April 30 and May 17, 2020; and since they can't raise any money through ticket sales, they're hoping the video will bring in some donations so they can keep this program going.
Working on this play and getting to know these actors was an eye-opening and inspiring experience for me, and I know it's had a positive impact on their lives, too. I hope you'll check it out, and if you're feeling generous, throw some money their way so they can keep doing good work in changing the ways our society deals with addiction and incarceration. Read the rest
"I feel so brain dead I can't even speak." Find out what happens when two editors from Popular Science quit their six-cup-a-day coffee habit for two weeks.
From the YouTube description:
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Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug on the planet. Like all good things in this world, it should be consumed in moderation—but PopSci editors Jess Boddy and Claire Maldarelli were definitely not following that unwritten rule, guzzling between six and ten cups of coffee per day. That put them at risk for disrupted sleep, heart palpitations, unusual nervousness, and more. So they decided to detox. Will their torturous 14-day cut regulate their sleep patterns and teach them to respect caffeine for the powerful drug that it is? Find out on this week's episode of Test Dummy.
Kratom (previously) is a plant that grows wild in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea, and is a relative of the coffee plant. For centuries, people have chewed or drunk teas brewed from its leaves for a mildly euphoric effect, and recently, the plant has come to the US, prompting many stories of incredible benefits in fighting opioid addiction and treating chronic pain, as well as some non-credible claims about curing cancer or producing morphine-like highs, as well as a moral panic that has led the FDA to (unsuccessfully) class it as a Schedule A narcotic, with no medical benefits.
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In my experience, people either immediately recognize the name of Harris Wittels, or they don’t at all. And that’s precisely what makes the comedian and former Parks & Rec writer’s death from addiction in 2015 that much more tragic.
4 years later, Wittels’ sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, has launched a new podcast series called “The Last Day” that explores the ongoing opioid epidemic in-depth and with astounding empathy. While many people have been affected by this problem, the solutions aren’t so readily apparent. Or, if they are, there are still stigmas around them that make it difficult to enact them on a larger enough scale.
In the 7th episode of the podcast, Wittels Wachs speaks with Svante Myrick, the 32-year-old politician who just won his third term as mayor of Ithaca, New York. Myrick speaks passionately and candidly about his own family’s history with addiction, and also about the potential benefits of safe injection sites—supervised spaces where people can go and freely use the drugs to which they are addicted. The idea is understandably controversial, particularly if you subscribe to the negative stereotypical assumptions about drug users. But, as Myrick explains, these safe injection sites have been shown to reduce deaths as well as crime.
If this sounds contradictory to you, well, then, I would suggest you listen to the podcast episode:
7: 20,000 Fewer Funerals
I’ll be honest: I’m not being completely objective here. My friend Matt overdosed and died in 2016. My wife also runs a professional theatre company in Ithaca, where Svante is mayor—and in 2018, I wrote a play about opioid recovery that was devised in collaboration with people in the Ithaca area who were transitioning out of prison and rehabilitation programs. Read the rest
Sesame Street continues its run of excellent, empathetic new muppets to help kids deal with a changing world: after introducing muppets experiencing homelessness, living with autism, and explaining marriage without recourse to gender norms, the show has introduced a muppet whose mother lost custody of her after becoming addicted to drugs.
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Juul is the cash-flush e-cigarette company whose billions (invested by Marlboro's parent company) have allowed it to create a massive market of addicted children, wiping out decades of progress in weaning children off of nicotine.
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Cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabis component that doesn't get you high but seems to have countless other benefits, has now been shown to reduce heroin cravings and the anxiety that's triggered when jonesing for the opioid. Researchers at the Addiction Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai ran a randomized, controlled, double-blind study with several dozen addicts who have been abstaining from use. From their scientific paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry:
Acute CBD administration, in contrast to placebo, significantly reduced both craving and anxiety induced by the presentation of salient drug cues compared with neutral cues. CBD also showed significant protracted effects on these measures 7 days after the final short-term (3-day) CBD exposure. In addition, CBD reduced the drug cue–induced physiological measures of heart rate and salivary cortisol levels. There were no significant effects on cognition, and there were no serious adverse effects.
And from Scientific American:
The anxiety reduction isn’t specific to opioid-related cues and could generalize to other situations, says neuroscientist Yasmin Hurd, first author on the study and director of the Addiction Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It’s just that this particular anxiety leads someone to take a drug that can cause them death, and anything we can do to decrease that means increasing the precious chance of preventing relapse and saving their lives.”
image: "Ball-and-stick model of the cannabidiol molecule." X-ray diffraction data from P. G. Jones, L. Falvello, O. Kennard, G. M. Sheldrick and R. Read the rest
For two decades, adolescent smoking has been on the decline, but thanks to vaping products like Juul (which has 75% of the market), teen smoking just jumped by levels not seen for 43 years.
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The film above documents "Treatment Box," a one-day installation in New York City's Greenwich Village over the summer where passers-by could watch 26-year-old Rebekkah suffer through the horrors of painkiller and heroin withdrawal. Anti-addiction organization The Truth orchestrated the recording and public showing of Rebekkah's five-day experience that was edited into a single long-form video. After the detox, Rebekkah entered a treatment facility for treatment at no cost to her. From Ad Age:
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The scenes of her shaky limbs, nausea, vomiting and insomnia played out on a three-dimensional installation at Astor Place in New York City in June. Passersby stopped to watch a life-size Rebekkah in her room, often huddled in bed, wracked with pain. Interspersed are short interviews where she explains that she was prescribed opioids when she was 14, after injuring her ankle during cheerleading practice. Addiction quickly followed, and two months later, she tried heroin. “I feel like I’m coming back from the dead,” she says on Day 3 of detox...
Before beginning the campaign, the organizations met with a medical ethicist to determine whether the project should move forward, and the treatment protocols were reviewed by Phoenix House, a national addiction treatment program.
The amazing, award-winning photographer and photography teacher Jonathan Worth (previously) is about to launch his next course: Depictions of Addiction, from Connected Academy, with internationally renowned photographers Nina Berman, Jeffrey Stockbridge and Graham Macindoe.
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The WHO proposes a "behavioral addiction pathology" for excessive video-game playing. But not one for a similar pattern of compulsive, harmful, endlessly looping use associated with smartphones and the internet in general. Ian Bogost writes that the proposed diagnosis reflects a desire to cast negative behaviors as the result of individual mental defects rather than more complex social, political, and economic factors at hand. The discrepancy between digital dependencies considered pathological and those considered perfectly normal may simply come down to pleasing lobbyists--or avoiding their displeasure.
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But what about computers, smartphones, or the internet more broadly? Proposals for internet addiction have been advanced for possible inclusion in the DSM-V. In those cases, a similar reliance on the substance-abuse model persists, along with suspicions regarding the legitimacy of withdrawal and tolerance as diagnostic criteria. The WHO told me that it began evaluating the public-health implications of excessive use of computers, smartphones, and the internet in 2014, in response to concerns from its community. But despite those concerns, gaming disorder made it into the ICD-11 draft as the only “clinically recognizable and clinically significant syndrome” related to the broader category of computing and the internet.
Some researchers wonder if the WHO might be under pressure to codify gaming disorder. In 2017, an article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice argued that two members of the WHO advisory group, Geoffrey Reed and Vladimir Poznyak felt political pressure to identify gaming disorder, particularly from member states where the consequences of excessive online gaming have been particularly extreme.
On Friday, Stamford, Connecticut gallerist Fernando Luis Alvarez and artist Domenic Esposito kindly installed Esposito's large sculpture of a burnt spoon outside of Purdue Pharma, developers of the OxyContin. Police calmly arrested Alvarez and charged him with "obstruction of free passage" and "interfering with police." The current group show at Alvarez's gallery is about the opioid epidemic. He had previously agreed to take the fall for the art action. According to Esposito, the spoon sculpture, titled "Purdue," was inspired by his brother who struggles with drug addiction. From the Hartford Courant:
In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty in federal court to mislabeling OxyContin and misleading the public about the risk of addiction, and had to pay $600 million. Three company executives were convicted of criminal charges. The firm has been and remains the target of numerous lawsuits, with legal actions against it increasing since the opioid epidemic reached a critical stage...
Robert Josephson, a spokesperson for Purdue, released a statement Friday morning.
“We share the protesters’ concern about the opioid crisis, and respect their right to peacefully express themselves. Purdue is committed to working collaboratively with those affected by this public health crisis on meaningful solutions to help stem the tide of opioid-related overdose deaths.”
photos: Brian O'Neil
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Opioid overdoses now kill more Americans every year than guns, breast cancer, or car accidents. 20 million Americans suffer from addiction to alcohol, illicit, or prescription drugs. On the second anniversary of Prince’s death from fentanyl overdose last weekend, the President of the United States demonstrated a deep ignorance of this medical epidemic, calling someone he considers an alcoholic and addict a “drunk/drugged up loser.”
Days later we learn that Dr. Ronny Jackson, the physician Trump nominated to lead the country’s largest healthcare system, the Veterans Administration, is known to have a drinking problem and is nicknamed “The Candyman” because of his reputation for freely distributing controlled substances to White House staff. With 1 in 10 soldiers seen by the VA for problems with alcohol or drugs – the majority as an outgrowth of being treated for chronic pain – Jackson was a dangerously ignorant choice.
Both the president’s regressive drug policy and his impulsive social media outbursts are conflicting, misinformed, and poorly executed, so his recent post about addicts being “losers” must seem pedestrian to most. In the same tweet he also managed to insult a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and engage in thinly veiled witness tampering before taking off for a round of golf while his wife attended Barbara Bush’s funeral. Numbed and spotty outcries ensued, and we moved along to the next week’s insults. It became just more white noise.
Leadership and policy drive the public’s attitudes about addiction and these opinions have very real consequences in people’s lives, as it did for Prince. Read the rest
There's still plenty of life left in my 2015 MacBook Pro. But sooner or later, I'll ditch my computer in favor something new.
The nerd in me is wicked excited with the notion of using an ultra light laptop with an external graphics processor, for several reasons. I've always wanted to own a gaming laptop, but I could never justify the price, or the weight of one in my bag. Going with a computer that can connect to an external GPU means that I could invest in the laptop first, and then the GPU when I could afford it. And since the GPU for the rig is external, I wouldn't be forced to carry around a heavy bastard of a computer with me every time I needed to take off on assignment. That said, I was hesitant to buy one without seeing how it'd perform, first and foremost, as a work machine. I really like the look of the Razer Blade Stealth: the laptop's industrial design is what Apple might have come up with if their design department had a shred of edge or attitude. So, relying on the privilege of my position as a tech journalist, I asked Razer if I could borrow one.
They said yes.
I spent the past month working on Razer's insanely well-built ultrabook. It was pimped out with 16GB of dual channel RAM, and an Intel Core i7 2.70Ghz processor. It's zippy! But then, that's in comparison to my daily driver: a three year old Core i5 with 8GB of RAM. Read the rest
Junaid Ahmed takes 200 selfies a day, enough to land him on UK's Obsessed with my Body. Read the rest
You can't game your way out of the ludic loop any more than you can smoke your way out of a crack habit, but Katie Bloom's found some interesting apps that aim to help us take back control.
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My favorite tool for doing this is Forest, an app that costs $1.99 and looks like it was designed for children, which is sort of pleasantly degrading. It’s been the #1 productivity app in the App Store for over a year; its only purpose is to help you stop touching your phone. Tap a button, sprout a little digital plant, and leave your phone alone until the allotted time is up. I use Forest every day, which has made me realize how often I pick up my phone for no reason, a feeling like walking into a room only to forget what I was planning to do there. It is depressing but instructive. As the stakes are technically nonexistent, I imagine this app is only truly useful for Catholics and others with a highly refined guilt palate.