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Crank: Made in America

Chris Fitzpatrick

Offers only disparate pieces of a large and complex puzzle, resulting in yet more evidence that 'drugs' inspire infatuation in outsiders.


Airtime: 8 April, 10pm ET
Subtitle: Made in America
Network: HBO
Being from New York City, it was interesting hearing vague whispers about a deadly homemade drug that was heading towards Manhattan. We did not know anything about crank. We were amazed how widespread and pervasive the crank epidemic is in America. � Eames Yates

Actually, the crank "epidemic" has been in Manhattan, as well as almost everywhere else for that matter. Crank: Made In America, part of HBO's America Undercover documentary series, follows three Iowa families of drug users (some with habits and others full-blown junkies) through the wretched realities of crank (Methamphetamine) and the gruesome subculture of self-destruction that accompanies the drug.

It is arguably the fastest spreading illegal drug in the world, especially in the rural areas of the U.S. It is also one of the most threatening. In that sense, Crank is a timely documentary and producer/director Yates' statement is partly true. Still, the film offers only disparate pieces of a large and complex puzzle, resulting in yet more evidence that "drugs" inspire infatuation -- whether romantic, clinical, or condemnatory -- in outsiders.

Infatuation of another sort surrounded me as I watched the documentary. Sitting in a San Francisco halfway house for drug addicts, I watched with people, like myself, who have done time in inpatient rehabilitation facilities and are now in transitional living. (I have also seen people I live with become temporarily repossessed by their addictions -- two relapsed soon after we saw the documentary and no longer reside in this house).

As we watched bowls burning, bumps and lines snorted, and needles used, my roommates flexed their disease with a combination of grandiose stories and ridicule of the film's subjects, for their "inadequate" needle loads, hits, and even (or especially) the color of the crank being consumed. In other words, as far as my roommates were concerned, Crank followed a bunch of amateurs. The "junky pride" they displayed shows the power drugs have over an addict, even when he is not using. It is so controlling that even a collection of addicts who are serious enough about recovering to go to a halfway house, can see Crank's difficult imagery and still want drugs.

Recognizing this ongoing desire is essential to understanding why so many of us persist in spite of drug-related devastation. As Clayton, one of the interview subjects in Crank, explains, "When you first hit the needle and the rush hits you, everything floats away. You're coming, you're eating chocolate cake, and you're falling in love for the first time. And that's how it gets you." In other words, the pleasure is so great that most addicts are willing to put up with the remarkable ensuing misery until it is too late, and many relapse even after significant recovery time. The two viewers from my house who have since relapsed only underline this point.

Crank fails to convey this struggle beyond standard soundbites like, "I don't know how I can ever stop." No kidding. That's why you're an addict. Addiction is a primary disease, caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and socialization, not a lack of willpower or morality. Withdrawing from drugs is painful and the Post Acute Withdrawal period wreaks havoc on the addict's mind and often involves crippling depression and fatalism. In other words, after quitting the drug, extremely difficult in the first place, the addict is bombarded by all kinds of irrational thoughts and cravings for the drug, making him feel powerless.

In order to quit for any sustained period of time, preferably forever, addicts have to change everything: our patterns of working and careers, methods of social interaction, friends, and in many cases, even divorce our families (which are, too often, what is commonly labeled "toxic"). According to HBO's website for the film, "Few men and women who become addicted ever break the habit." But the documentary fails to explain why.

Even getting to the point where one wants to stop is made difficult by social stigmatization, and the guilt, shame, and confusion it reinforces. Also troubling is the lack of treatment centers for people who can't afford to go to posh rehabs. Too often, before an addict can reach a "bottom," he or she is incarcerated. For example, here in California, despite a few excellent facilities, along with thousands of anonymous step-meetings available every day, most drug users fall victim to the prison-industrial-complex. And of those, a disproportionate number are black males.

To its credit, Crank doesn't offer the usual images -- like those on Cops -- that perpetuate fear of the Black Male Drug Addict. Instead, the documentary's subjects are all white, perhaps predictably, given that its location is Iowa, not the inner cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. Crank, the documentary notes, goes by many names, both on the street and in the documentary (meth, speed, crystal, tweak, Crissy, Tina, etc.), but leaves out a telling street name: "White Crack." If crack is stigmatized as the "inner city" and "black" drug, then crank is the "white trash drug." Crack and crank are abused by every race, in every possible place, but it helps the war on drugs' systemic racism to apply such semantic tools of marginalization.

If Crank reverses some racist assumptions by following these Midwestern users, it brings up another problem, which might, I the long run, resolve in a positive way. While Crank divides the culture of white addicts by class and geography, its subjects are white. White points to suburb, which points to the decriminalization of the white suburban addict, which could lead to a change in attitude towards drugs, which could eventually trickle down to the benefit of the marginalized sets who need treatment, not incarceration.

One such "fringe" group that Crank does leave out is the gay community (again, perhaps understandable, given its focus on rural Iowa). The San Francisco Chronicle is running an excellent series, by Christopher Heredia,, on crystal meth (a cleaner version of crank, but basically the same thing) and its role in the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (the first of three parts ran on 4 May 2003). Its popularity is frightening not only because of the primary effects, but also because the drug lowers inhibitions, leading to unprotected sex, again casting a stereotypical aspersion on gay communities.

I wish Crank had addressed another important question: why is this old drug so popular now, across so many communities? One possibility is cultural. Besides the obvious euphoria, crank exaggerates today's high-speed lifestyle, and users often go on long binges that keep them up for days or weeks at a time, tweaking. Daily experience is faster now, in response to, or resulting in, the ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) Generation, moving at an MTV-pace. High-speed devices -- tv, the internet -- become babysitters for children, while their parents struggle to work unreasonable hours in the "new" economy.

Ironically, the original pharmaceutical solution to ADD was Ritalin (Methylphenidate, which is essentially mild Methamphetamine). In the mid-1990s, Ritalin was so over-prescribed that up to 80% of children in some U.S. schools had prescriptions. The problem with Ritalin highlights the enduring belief of the "Prozac Nation": there is a pill for everything. Eager psychiatrists hand out a variety of pharmaceuticals like Welbutrin and Neurontin, purported to minimize cravings for illegal drugs (though they do not, in most cases).

Crank fails to examine the possible solutions to addiction, such as primary and outpatient rehabilitation centers, anonymous 12-step groups, psychiatrists and psychologist, crisis hotlines, mental institutions, Narconon, and more. The documentary ends on a desperate note, leaving us with the image of a junky couple and their track marks, looking as if they have no way out. Despite the inevitable cravings that Crank induced in my halfway house, the reality remains that we, like millions of others across the world, remain hard at work in recovery, moving away from such temptations rather than towards the repeated images of abject misery offered by the documentary.

Forget the bleak statistics. Addicts can and do quit using drugs. Accurate representation needs to follow suit, even if it doesn't inspire the same "infatuation." Until it becomes common knowledge that addiction is a disease and not a failure, one that inflicts its symptoms not only on the addict, but also the addict's family, state, country, and world; until treatment is seen as the solution instead of prison; until insurance agencies stop calling the shots on Treatment Centers; and until the war on drugs becomes remotely rational -- no serious inroads can be made in eradicating addiction.

Despite its good work -- tracing the history of Methamphetamine back to Nazi Germany, explaining that Crank can be homemade in a sink (challenging a vital premise of the War on Drugs), and tracking white addicts -- Crank offers yet another outsider's view of the big bad "drug world." In this view, you see desperation: needles, blood, trash, dirt, and people spun out of their minds on crank.

These images are important to getting across how much misery is involved in addiction. But they can also be too sensational, with fast-paced graphics and a heavy metal theme song. Sadly, some fiction films, like Requiem For a Dream and Spun, more thoroughly depict the horror of drug addiction. This might make sense, given that being inside active drug addiction is like being in a scary movie, only the main character usually dies. The question is, can we get the authors of budgets and social policy, rather than prescriptions and prison sentences, to write new scripts, with happier endings?

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