Some people like to shoot dope: Ideology and pragmatism in the film ‘Methadone: An American Way of Dealing’

Author: David Frank

People on methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) are in a difficult position. I should know since I’ve been on it for close to 20 years. They are caught in the space between a program that helps them in a way that is primarily pragmatic – by providing access to a safe and consistent supply of opioids outside of the difficult and dangerous conditions created by prohibition/criminalization – and our culture’s need to frame everything drug related through the ideological narrative of “addiction” and “recovery.” In short, MMT enables criminalized drug users to decriminalize their opioid use, and yet, like the emperor who wears no clothes, it must publicly masquerade as a “treatment for addiction” so as to not disrupt the War on Drugs ideologies that require firm distinctions between “drug” and “medicine”; “addict” and “non-addict”. It’s no wonder that people end up a little confused.

Methadone: An American Way of Dealing captures these contradictions playing out in real time.

Read more

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.” 

Read more

Methadone: An American Way of Thinking

In 1976, the East German government stole and repurposed for its own broadcasts a copy of Julia Reichert’s and James Klein’s documentary film, Methadone: An American Way of Dealing. The theft was clumsy, almost unabashedly so, in the way that GDR intrusions often could be. Reichert and Klein had submitted the film for consideration in the 19th annual Leipzig Documentary Film Festival, but it was rejected for having been delivered to the committee after the deadline. When the film print was returned to the directors, it obviously had been cut and only partially reassembled. The original reels on which it had left the U.S. were gone, replaced by film cores. The leaders (the length of cellulose attached to the beginning or end of a film to assist the projectionist) were in German, not English. To add insult to injury, the package arrived with an exorbitant bill for cash-on-delivery shipping. 

Read more

“I envision the methadone clinic as we now know it disappearing”: The promises and failures of methadone and LAAM

I’ve watched Methadone: An American Way of Dealing five times now. Each time, I’m taken aback by how skillfully directors Julia Reichert and James Klein present this moment—a period of peak tension in the addiction treatment community. By 1974, when the film was released, the early promises of methadone were butting up, often painfully, against the era’s difficult realities. Through interviews with patients at the Dayton, Ohio, Bureau of Drug Abuse clinic (BUDA) at the center of the film, Reichert and Klein make it clear that methadone, once hailed as the solution to the decade’s twin problems of addiction and crime, couldn’t overcome the era’s other issues: deindustrialization, Vietnam, and America’s trends toward atomization and its concomitant political right turn. 

Read more

Intolerable Normalcies: Multiple American Methadones

“To what extent can social problems be circumvented by reducing them to technological problems? Can we identify quick technological fixes for profound and almost infinitely complicated social problems, fixes that are within the grasp of modern technology and which would either eliminate the original social problem without requiring a change in the individual’s social attitudes or would alter the problem as to make its resolution more feasible?”

Dorothy Nelkin asked the questions above in her  slim volume, Methadone Maintenance: A Technological Fix (New York: George Braziller, 1973), where she argued the practice would have a tenuous future as a “chemotherapeutic ‘fix’” for heroin addiction. The latter, she wrote, was an “adaptive response to real and overwhelming social or psychological difficulties that cannot be resolved by a simple technological fix” (3, 152). But methadone was no simple technological fix. Programs developed in a “climate of conflict extending from the level of policy down to the actual operation of individual clinics” (8). The Dayton, Ohio, methadone clinic where James Klein and Julia Reichert shot their film Methadone: An American Way of Dealing is a Black space full of energy and music—even as no-nonsense white nurses refuse to disclose to Black patients the dosage they are serving up in their “free cup of methadone.”

Read more

The Points Methadone Marathon

Methadone Movie Title Card

Welcome to the home page for the Points Methadone Marathon!

January marks ten years since the launch of the Points blog, and to celebrate this historic milestone, we’re invoking another, larger anniversary: passage of The Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act of 1972 (Public Law 92-255). The ramifications of this law were far-reaching, not only in the “war on drugs” but also in the less-scrutinized evolution of substance abuse treatment. Methadone was the place where theorists of criminal justice and treatment met and—briefly—danced. In the shadow of the radical critiques both had suffered during the 1960s, they looked to find a cost-effective and empowering way to combat heroin addiction. But like so many grand ideas from this particular moment in time, things didn’t quite work out according to plan.

The reasons for that are many, of course, and the ramifications are legion; the Points Methadone Marathon aims to unpack them all. We kick off with an exclusive screening of James Klein and Julia Reichert’s outstanding 1974 film Methadone: An American Way of Dealing. This cinema verité classic was deemed too controversial for wide release back in the day, and has long been out of circulation. Thanks to the generosity of James Klein, you can see it here now at the link embedded below.

Read more

2021: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Smoke-em-if-you-got-em
January 6, 2021: Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em.
Image Source: Ayamann Ismail, “What I Saw Inside the Capitol Riot,” Slate, Jan. 7, 2021.

Editor’s Note: Founding Points Co-Editor Trysh Travis wraps up 2021 for us and gives a preview of what’s to come on Points in 2022. See you in the new year!

As another Covid year closes out, Points readers may find themselves wondering whether a historical perspective on alcohol and drugs is really useful—or even possible, given the unprecedented nature of our lives right now. Maybe critique is overrated and use and abuse is where it’s at?

Read more

Another Shot: Will dAd5GNE “End” Cocaine Addiction?

Among Facebook friends familiar with my work, dozens of conversations have started by their linking me to relevant pieces on, for example, the racial disparities of marijuana legalization, the therapeutic application of psychedelics, and, perhaps less pressing but no less appreciated, the varieties of ways our ancestors got high. As much as I try to …

Read more