An American Way of Working

In Methadone: An American Way of Dealing, work is everywhere. Dayton, Ohio, the film’s primary location, is introduced to us as a “manufacturing community” beset by crime. These two types of work—factory and crime—come up again and again while we are in town. Straight work, at GM, or at a foundry, leads to getting high just to bear it, to “paint over the factory,” as one young worker puts it, and get through another soul-killing shift. Staying in the plant and getting by on methadone instead is tough. We meet only one worker doing this; he is trying to taper off and not making it, missing shifts for the first time because he feels so low.  We meet many workers who have chosen to stay outside the factory, period, and stay high all the time. They claim they are living a better, more real life than their fathers did, trooping into factories every day with their coveralls and lunchboxes, “sheep” meekly accepting their slaughter.  As the film notes, with its passing shots of street preachers and sex shows, the straight life is studded with its own addictive consolations. Dayton, we are told, has “1000 bars and just one [methadone] clinic.” 

One young man says “the assembly lines won’t be here in 10 years.” In 2021, we know he was both right and wrong. It wasn’t, as he predicts, because young people wouldn’t stand the slow brutality of line work. It was because companies decided to move that work somewhere cheaper. We also know of the substance use disorder, drug poisoning, violence, and suicide that deindustrialization wrought in Dayton and so many other communities.  

 The young people of Dayton may want freedom, but life on drugs—the illegal ones, anyway— takes its own types of work, and we meet several men and women in that line.  They are sex workers, pimps; they rob, they boost, they steal, they deal. This is dangerous work. Crime comes with the usual risks: violence, arrest, imprisonment, abuse, trauma. A lot of them go on methadone through their encounters with cops and courts. Methadone is a safer alternative, perhaps, but the methadone patients are split on whether the clinic is a good thing or not.  

The filmmakers seem sure that it isn’t. They present the Dayton methadone program not as a public health solution, but a narcotized netherworld, a tool of sinister bureaucrats trapping people between, as the filmmakers frame it, addiction and the freedom that must be won through “changing your life,” in their words. The clinic is a place of stagnation. We see many, many shots of people nodding off. There are workers at the methadone clinic, too. They are either corrupt, like the counsellors who deal drugs to people using the clinic, or checked out, like the blasé receptionists and the doctor who doesn’t see patients, just signs prescription forms. 

There are a couple people in this part of the film who speak beyond the limits of how drugs and freedom are conceived by the filmmakers in this section. One clinic supporter praises the clinic’s resources to help him stabilize his life, while admitting he doesn’t intend to fully quit heroin. Why not? “I like to shoot dope,” he says several times. That’s what he likes. He argues with another patient who is a vocal critic of the clinic, but who also understands, as he puts it, that “everyone uses something.” It seems the filmmakers think he’s talking about everyone in his circle. It seemed to me like he meant everyone, period. Both men raise real questions about substance use, labor, freedom, and choice that don’t quite fit how the filmmakers present the clinic. Who defines what freedom is, or how one’s life should be changed? Is it healthy and worthwhile to remake yourself to fit into an addicted society? 

Sunlight breaks through the bleakness of the film when it moves from Dayton to Washington, DC, and the RAP clinic, a marriage of Synanon and Black Power that is based on liberation, education, and abstinence. At RAP, we again see work everywhere, but work of a different kind. At RAP, where participants lived collectively, we see people engaged in a collective project to work, not for the profit of others or a temporary fix, but to maintain a viable community outside both the capitalist workplace and the drug life. We see people cooking together, cleaning their own space. We see the work participants put into challenging, hearing, and conversing with each other during their version of the confrontational “Synanon Game.” We see their work of learning science for GEDs in the house’s classroom section. We hear of the work they do to hustle donations from businesses to keep RAP going. We watch them working in the community, trying to transform the structures around them that produced trauma and substance abuse. We watch them work with each other, and for each other, and we see them enjoying it. They seem to be answering some of the questions raised by the men at the methadone clinic, living a life that rejects not only addiction but also the society that produces it. 

Unfortunately, the radical aspects of 1960s and 1970s drug programs like RAP were sacrificed as the model was scaled up, and what the people in charge of most state, workplace, and carceral programs retained in the 1980s was the moralizing demand that one must change oneself. Claire Clark’s analysis of Cenikor: a Synanon offshoot started in prison, became funded by corporate backers in Houston, and then a Reagan-praised rehab that offered nothing more than unpaid labor for corporate clients and 12-step. As my own research demonstrates, employers preferred workers pursuing personal transformation and abstinence over those seeking integration and medical treatment. It had less stigma, less bureaucracy, less questions and understanding required. One RAP counselor, after outlining the structural causes of addiction says to a new member that, nevertheless, “it all starts with you, and getting your shit together.” In the 1980s that’s where it stopped, too, in recovery programming of all kinds. 

I’m very grateful, therefore, that the filmmakers made this movie and we have the opportunity to see it now. Through our time with the people at RAP, the filmmakers show us that addiction and freedom aren’t actually opposites. The ideas of freedom and consumption at the heart of how we imagine America are precisely what fuels drug culture here. Maybe, the film suggests, we need to leave both behind in order to achieve a healthier life. Neither the factory workers nor the street users possess the connection and purpose of the people at RAP. As one of RAP’s leaders says “America doesn’t have a drug culture. America is a drug culture.” Whether your work was legal or illegal, you were working in that drug culture. Through their time with RAP, the filmmakers have showed us the real work we need to do that transforms and brings freedom: reshaping our world into one of love, care, and dignity for all.

Jeremy Milloy
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Dr Jeremy Milloy is a scholar who researches, writes, and teaches about work, violence, addiction, and capitalism in Canada and the United States.

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