President Nixon’s cynical “war on drugs” provided money to public broadcasting for programs on drug abuse. KQED received a grant to do four programs on successful drug-rehabilitation programs. It seemed like a safe subject for a cultural correspondent and KQED asked me to produce them.
I traveled through the Bay Area on research and even went down to Los Angeles to look at Synanon. I interviewed directors of a large variety of rehabilitation efforts and all the conversations went pretty much the same way. At first, a rather formal explanation of the treatment plan and some of the early results, which were always favorable. Pushed a little further, the directors admitted that after the addicts left the program, the majority eventually resumed their addiction.
I wasn’t filming and I didn’t carry a tape recorder on my research trips. At about this time into my conversations, the directors would hesitate, and ask if I really wanted to know the truth “off camera.” A doctor at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley then explained that he was a weekend chipper, taking heroin Friday and Saturday nights like many other doctors he assured me. He asked me with a glint in his eye if I’d ever tried heroin. The director of a half way house for recovering addicts was a heavy pot smoker. In some clinics therapists used methadone to wean addicts off heroine. The doctors all knew, of course, that chemists developed heroin to wean addicts off opium!
One exception might have been Alcoholics Anonymous, which had been growing across America since the 1930s, but it was hard to get reliable statistics. Certainly those who stayed in the program for several years had a higher chance of recovery, but some studies suggested that 81% dropped out in their first year. Alcoholics Anonymous staff wouldn’t talk to me on or off Camera.
Neither would the founder nor staff of Synanon, another supposedly successful program. An ex-addict named Chuck Dieterick founded Synanon in 1958. By 1970, it worked by replacing whatever addiction you came in with for an addiction to the founder. During the time I was working on the series, Dieterick decided to quit smoking. Everyone in Synanon quit the next day.
Instead of 4 half hours, I gave KQED a one half hour program called One Step at a Time, based on everything people would NOT say on camera. Actors read the script. KQED gave me a talented 16mm cameraman to film images of the physical and social conditions that seemed to lead people to addition. No short-term anti-drug program worked in an environment where drugs were so readily available and society itself was so terribly fractured. Our documentary was stark and pessimistic, showing the social and physical environment in which drug use was taking place. It was not at all what the drug administration had in mind, but its honesty won One Step at a Time a San Francisco State Journalism award, my first for television.
Spiraling addiction rates and our inability to deal with them, rumors that the government might be encouraging the flow of heroin into the ghettoes all just seemed to be another sign of a collapsing society, unable to fulfill basic human needs. Movies of 1971 caught the drift. Robert Altman’s Mash with the theme song, “Suicide is painless, it leads to many changes …” Mash was set in Korea but everyone knew it was a comment on the stupidity of Vietnam. As was Catch 22, which Mike Nichols made from Joseph Heller’s great book of the same name. The madness of World War II ( an almost sacred war fought by “The Great Generation”) in which Milo Minderbinder sells his flier’s parachute silk to make money for “the syndicate.”
Michelangelo Antonioni’s bleak Zabriskie Point, where another counter-culture hero is shot down by the police and his grieving girlfriend imagines the destruction of a mega-mansion in the Arizona desert, a scene that Antonini ran for a full five minutes. Macabe & Mrs Miller where Warren Beaty, the small business man, is gunned down by a corporation because he won’t accept their buy-out price while his lover, Julie Christie, smokes opium, came out in 1971. And The Godfather, which some Americans thought was a metaphor for advanced capitalism, was released in 1972.
The idea of dropping out of this increasingly toxic environment began to appeal to me.