THE WAR ISN’T OVER: Prohibition Cannot Cure Addiction

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PHOTO: My friend Scott Cohen at prom, 11 year’s before his death.

by Tom Donohue

Scott Cohen was my best friend in high school. He was the instigator within our small band of misfits, and we had been through many adventures together, from working on our cars, to going on road trips, flying to Daytona Beach for Spring Break, to one very ill-advised winter camping trip in the mountains of western Massachusetts. He had a good heart, even though he had a penchant for mischief at times and he often tried to convince me to join him in his hijinks. He did talk me into them on numerous occasions, but I tried my best to keep both of us on the straight and narrow. For example, he was the one who first introduced me to marijuana, although he was not successful in convincing me to try it a second time, after I coughed up my lungs for what felt like half an hour. We graduated from high school in 1989, and in the fall I left for college, while he stayed in town to work and attend community college. We kept in touch and got together whenever I had the chance to go back and visit, enjoying the good times we had when we did.

As the years went on though, I began to hear vague comments about how Scott wasn’t doing so well and he was struggling.  I hadn’t talked with him about it, but I figured it was probably financial and possibly related to some scheme of his. It wasn’t until the next time I saw him I became aware of what was really happening.  I went back for the holidays and when he and I got together, he insisted we go out for a drive to catch up. He suggested we go to Holyoke, where he had some friends he wanted to see, so I figured why not. Having been away for several years though, I didn’t realize how run down and seedy the area had become. As we were pulling up to the run-down apartment building there, he told me he was going to do a quick deal and to just be cool when we went inside. That’s when I realized he had suckered me into driving him to get drugs, and discovered he was in the grip of a serious heroin addiction.

After we left, I let Scott know just how upset I was with him for involving me in that, as well as how concerned I was about his own health and well being. He apologized for using false pretenses and for dragging me in there, but he tried to justify it by telling me he had no other choice and he just had to do it.  He brushed off my concerns for him by saying he had it under control, he only snorted it and he refused to shoot it, but I remained unswayed. I begged him to get help with quitting and to take care of himself, yet he wouldn’t listen to what I had to say, being the strong-headed person he was.  He thought he just didn’t need to quit, claiming he knew what he was doing, and it wasn’t like he was some junkie out on the street. Little did I know then, this visit would be the last time I would ever see him.

After I left town, I tried to keep in touch with him and keep pushing him to get help, but it became more and more difficult as he lost apartments and moved around from place to place, going on and off of the radar map. A year or two later, I moved to California to start a new job and I hadn’t talked with Scott for some time. Then one day, almost 11 years after we graduated from high school, I got the news that Scott had died.  He was found in the back seat of his car, dead from a heroin overdose. I felt a void form inside of me, which slowly filled with a mix of deep sadness over the loss and frustration at being unable to have done more, as the finality of the news slowly sank in.

Some might feel inclined to jump to their feet and say “oh, well he started out a pot smoker, and just look where it got him” – but pot was not the “gateway drug” which led to his demise. Scott’s downward slide started several years before, after he had an operation on a blood vessel in his groin that was very painful, and his doctor prescribed Percoset to him as a painkiller. He quickly became addicted to those pills, so eventually they switched him to Percodan and others later, to try to keep him from developing too strong of a dependence on any one of them.

However, by that point his addiction to opiates already had a strong hold on him, regardless of which kind they were, and his addictive nature only served to stoke those destructive flames. Eventually, when he could no longer get a prescription for pills, he turned to the street, where they were in ample supply, at least for a while.  But then, when he could no longer find pills, he turned to heroin to get his fix.  He started by snorting it as he told me, but eventually he did give in to injecting it. He continued to slip further and further down that spiral of addiction, with little more than half-measures available to him, to get the proper medical care and treatment he needed to break the fatal cycle before it was too late.

Scott may not have been perfect, as he had numerous challenges in his life he needed help with, but he was a bright, charismatic, and funny guy who could have done and given so much more to this world, if he hadn’t been taken from us so soon. His death is one of the reasons why I won’t rest until the War on Drugs is over, we stop persecuting and marginalizing addicts, and we instead treat addiction as the serious health issue it is, rather than a crime that warrants punishment by the justice system.