Rochester University Opiate Symposium – May 20, 2022

Leonard Lee Buschel begins … Good morning Rochester and to everyone here dedicated to the mission to reduce the death march of overdosing Americans. When I received the call asking me to speak here at this NATIONAL RURAL SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER HEALTH EQUITY AND STIGMA SUMMIT, the first thing I said was, “This’s quite a mouthful.” And then I told Erin the organizer, I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I have lived in

Los Angeles for 25 years, so all I know about Rural America I know from having seen Field of Dreams…twice. Erin said, “That’s great.” So last week I was looking over a speech I gave in 2017 and the number that jumped out was that there were 42,000 overdose deaths that year.  And now it’s over 100,000 people dead from putting too much of their drug of choice in their bodies or practically any amount of the synthetic, highly lethal drugs available in every state in the union.

I understand how that can happen. First off, the high must be amazing, and remember a famous study some years ago, when they interviewed thousands of heavy smokers, and told them that Smoking could very well kill them? Remember what a MAJORITY of them said? “OH YES, but IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME.”

The mantra of every death defying intravenous drug Addict in the world, IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME. But the odds are, it won’t. Well maybe a few are hoping it does happen to them.

Has anyone here ever done heroin?  Or taken more painkillers than they were prescribed?  My heroin career lasted about a year.  I only smoked it, never shot it or snorted it, luckily, I was afraid of needles.  I never experienced the desire to be penetrated by a cool stiff Metallica wand even if it does make you feel like … to quote Lenny Bruce, “you’re being kissed by God”.  So, my heroin-smoking career only lasted one year.  I liked it a lot, it tasted like I was inhaling silk.  My career as a drug addict lasted a little longer.  Though I really only got high once – for 26 years.  Speaking of Lenny Bruce, when he died of an overdose in his Hollywood home, the newspaper photographers asked the police to put the needle back in Lenny’s arm for their front-page photos.  When I saw that famous photo, I realized that shooting heroin could kill you, even if you were rich and famous, of which I was neither. 

My name is Leonard Buschel and I am an addiction survivor.  I was born in Philadelphia, Pa, eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay area, Marin County, to be precise and have now lived in sunny Los Angeles for the last gloriously sober 25 years.

That’s where I founded the Reel Recovery Film Festival & Symposium 14 years ago.  I won’t go into all that right now.  My memoir/autobiography was just published in November of last year.  I had been working on it for quite some time and when the 1st Covid era started 2 years ago I said, “God!” if I can’t finish this book during a goddamn lockdown I never will, so I did – and it’s been published and it’s great.

I wanted to give my 2 sons some literary effort to be proud of me for.  And if you want to really feel your age, write a memoir. I did not write the book to get people to like me, just to know me.  It’s very humorous, with a lot of sex, drugs, and modern jazz. 

It’s called, HIGH: CONFESSIONS OF A CANNABIS ADDICT. I have gotten a little push back from the title. An old friend and well known radio DJ in Philly wrote to me that he had a problem with the phrase, CANNABIS ADDICT. Then he said, and I quote, “I’ve smoked pot for 52 years … and I can stop whenever I want.” Sort of proving my point. A marijuana bottom is very subtle. It’s doesn’t include a DUI, overdose, jail time, or a sudden eruption of violence or liver failure. Just a slow eroding of mental facilities, and some arrested development.

For the last 8½ years I have been the publisher and editor of the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin, a weekly newsletter. A job that I think being born in Philadelphia really trained me for. You see, by the time I was entering High School, I was already a news junkie. Every morning we would get the Philadelphia Inquirer delivered, around noon, I would buy the Daily News from the news stand, and around 4, I would get the afternoon Philadelphia Bulletin from a corner news box. Mostly for sports scores, race track results, movie theater listings and local Philly political corruption news. Oh, the good old days, phone booths and news boxes. Currently the eBulletin have 23,000 subscribers.   

And a website with 10,000 visitors a month that contains all new articles every Tuesday morning.  From 100’s of articles we aggregate at least 30 stories from the world’s leading news sources, such as the Guardian UK, New York Times, CNN, the BBC, the Huffington Post and yes, occasionally People magazine, Newsweek, Fox News and even TMZ. 

Sometimes we also AGGRAVATE. Shortly after founding the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin, I was sued by Sovereign Health of California for $3,000,000.  We had reprinted an article from the Orange County Register about Sovereign’s corrupt and criminal practices in the treatment industry. For emphasis we added the word Busted above the owner.  That really pissed them off.

After 2 years of headaches, court appearances and pro bono lawyers helping us, the suit was thrown out, and Sovereign Health was raided again by the FBI and eventually never heard from again. Literally, they went out of business forever.

I am very proud to be participating in this conference with so many people whose hearts are in the right places, and whose actions match their words. I would like to acknowledge Beth Macy for her groundbreaking book, Dope Sick and intrepid investigative reporter Sam Quinones’s and his exceptional work, Dreamland and The Least of Us.  Everything I know about Fentanyl I learned from Sam.

I want to thank the organizers of this amazing conference for inviting me here to share my experience, strength, and hope, the latter of which I have had to tap from my emergency reserves. Which is not easy, because as the editor and publisher of the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin I read over a hundred articles a week about the devastation that all kinds of addiction, drugs, alcohol, anxiety and fear is wreaking upon the entire fabric of American Society.

If the overdose rate doubles every 5 years, it could add up to 200,000 dead civilians a year in 2031, that’s a total of 2 million people in 10 years. That’s the entire population of Philadelphia and its suburbs.

When we lost 42,000 souls 5 years ago, what preventative and lifesaving initiatives were put into place, and why does it seem like they did not work?

I’m not sure if every intravenous drug user in America was just given a prescription for Suboxone, how much that would help. It seems like the government thinks that’s a silver bullet for opiate addicts. I hope the addicts agree.

For one thing most of the 325,000,000 Americans that are not directly touched by addiction don’t care as much as we would like them to.  It seems that the only people who really care are those who have been personally and tragically affected.

12 years ago almost to the day, a woman that I loved very much died from an injection of too much cocaine and speed, and there is no one to blame. (pause)

Except maybe her mother for having left her in an abusive situation when she was 12 years old. And after that trauma her mind was never the same.  So for Jewelle Sturm, drugs were the solution to her mental problems And it is very diabolical when the solution becomes more dangerous than the problem. 

Sometimes I wonder where God is in all this.  Do families come together in faith and share the grief, or do they blame each other and the victim for all eternity.  Does the shock, anger and sadness bring family members closer to their church and spiritual beliefs?  Or do they lose faith forever? I must say that sometimes they start wonderful organizations to try and help prevent other families from suffering the same fate.  And once in a while they produce a film to help educate and motivate others to become recovery advocates and more understanding and compassionate individuals.  Those are some of the kind of films we show at the Reel Recovery Film Festival & Symposium.  One such film is Behind the Orange Curtain.

Please let me explain the image that was on the screen when I got up here.

As I’m sure some of you read in the New York Times two months ago, this March.  It turns out that the very same FDA officials regulating and investigating Big Pharma’s complicity and responsibility for the opioid crisis, were simultaneously working for the Sackler Family, owners of Purdue Pharma.  The foxes were guarding the hen house and thousands of hens died.

And as you know, another agency with alleged ties to Big Pharma, The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations was also found to be responsible for participating in the opiate nightmare by wholeheartedly and murderously adopting and forcing most hospitals in America to add “pain” as the fifth vital sign, which contributed to an incredible increase in the amount of painkiller prescriptions being written across America.

HMMMM….why did this happen????

Maybe the most obvious cause is greed; personal, corporate and political GREED.

After all, who benefits from the opioid crisis?

• The pharmaceutical companies
• The prison industrial complex
• Hospitals
• The government and We all know Rudolf Giuliani was brought in early on to squash legal actions against Purdue Pharma years ago in West Virginia. That’s from a Beth Macy article in 2018.

So who else is making money?

• Doctors
• funeral homes – the florist industry
• Maybe even this conference…
• The rehab industry
• Wall Street
• Drug stores chains like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart
• Not to mention all the Mexican and South American cartels and the Chinese supplier’s of the raw material used to manufacture meth and fentanyl.

Hey maybe the unemployment rate is low because there are 100,000 people who aren’t looking for work today since they died of a drug overdose last year. Speaking of the 100,000 who died, very few people talk about how MORE didn’t die and, experienced the best high of their lives

If you want an illustration to just what a CRAZY world we live in – an 80-1 shot won the Kentucky Derby – Someone bought a lithograph by Andy Warhol for 190 MILLION dollars, and the richest country in the world is running out of baby formula.

If my talk this morning seems a little all over the place it might be because I smoked pot every day of my life for 26 years.  The only days I missed were because I was in the hospital with asthma attacks.  My thinking is not as linear as it could be, and I think I even have a little brain damage.  By the way, I also snorted cocaine every single day for 13 years. And I mean every single every day.  You can afford to do that when you’re a coke dealer. 

But I was really only a coke addict for one year, the 13th year.  Because for the previous 12 years, every time I did a line or a spoonful, I did it because I wanted to, but in that 13th year I would tell myself in the morning that I wasn’t gonna do any lines until after dinner, but sure enough, shortly after lunch I’d be chopping up some blow and taking a snort. That cycle went on all during my 13th year of using. My definition of addiction is when you tell yourself you’re not going to take a substance or engage in behavior that you have told yourself you wouldn’t do. And you have to do it no matter what the consequence, guilt or regret. I was only able to quit doing coke on my own because … I discovered I could snort Ecstasy, MDMA, Molly what ever you want to call it.

I got my supply in capsules that I could open, crush and snort.  Maybe I was just addicted to putting white powders up my nose once in awhile.  That reminds me of the quote from William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and Junkie.  “You can’t quit an addiction you can just switch it to another one.

Does anyone here think that the Internet, Facebook, Instagram and the whole social media metaverse has worsened the drug problem in America?  If that’s true, imagine what the future will bring.  Psychologists agree the causes of addiction are numerous and complicated. It’s impossible to address them all here.

Though is it poverty or entitlement?  Trauma or neglect? Peer pressure or loneliness? Boredom or anxiety?

Or is it the shortage of bliss, harmony, joy and love in America.  As noted English author Johann Hari said in his book, Chasing the Scream, “the opposite of addiction … is human connection”.  Isn’t it perfect that the person you buy your drugs from is called “your connection.” During that secret handshake-like transaction, they become your closest friend.

So…why is this generation so anxious? Gun crimes went up 35% last year. How many school shootings a week were there when we were in High School?  I never had to walk through a metal detector to get to my homeroom.  If I had, I probably would have been nervous and distracted all day thinking about the person who snuck a pistol through an open window to a friend with monstrous ill intent.

America does not really seem to be offended by violence. It’s all too common nowadays to see war coverage every day, weekly mass shootings and the accidental violence of the opiate addicted in the headlines. 

PLUS, the world is moving too fast now.  A lot of us can’t handle it.  Texting, Instagram, What’s App, the 24-hour a day non-stop news cycle, and it’s mostly really bad news.  Global warming, I mean the future extinction of planet Earth, our most prized real-estate, is a problem we all face now.  Especially our youth. It’s only a matter of time before Mid-town Manhattan becomes riverfront property.

The world is moving so fast I get panicky just thinking about it.  Faxing is too slow for this generation, and cassette players don’t even exist anymore. And NOW ipods are gone too.

Imagine a 15-year-old today, having to take down the phone book, look up a number in alphabetical order and dial ten numbers on a rotary phone?  They would be too bored to continue before they got past the area code.

Does anyone here remember Alvin Toffler? He wrote the classic book “Future Shock” in 1970. “Future Shock is defined as a certain  state of distress or disorientation due to rapid social or technological change. It’s too much change in too short a period of time.”  That was written 50 years ago, when he warned us that most people were not psychologically or emotionally ready and “would experience an abrupt collision with the future”.  The first Apple laptop did not come around until 19 years later. 

Opiates help people slowdown.  Yes, it’s an extreme medication, but it works.  I considered becoming a heroin addict in my early 40’s but decided I didn’t want to ruin my life.  Maybe public education wasn’t that bad back then. I learned some critical thinking. Maybe today’s kids are taught to absorb information, but they don’t know how to think. Yes, so I consciously decided not to become a heroin addict, but I also never left my house without a Percodan, a few Valiums, a couple joints, a vial of coke or Ecstasy and some magic mushrooms, just in case I ran into Hunter Thompson.   

I am reminded of a death-defying incident I experienced a number of years ago. I was up all night with a friend in Studio City snorting coke and drinking endless bottles of Heineken.  When I finally lay down to sleep, as the sun was coming up, and those awful birds were starting to sing.  I had a massive asthma attack brought on by dehydration and my completely collapsed bronchia.  Luckily my friend Steven and I hadn’t taken the usual 6am “let’s get to sleep, 10mg Valium … because when I knocked on his bedroom door, he was still awake.  He saw that I was suffocating and completely blue.  He immediately called 911.  I knew I was dying. It was and is the worst experience of my entire life.  I was being catapulted through deep space as I was dying, a million miles through the darkest hell imaginable. I was almost dead.  I was traveling at the speed of light, through the blackest space, blacker than black. Then I saw my son’s DNA floating in the cosmos I knew I had to make it back.  I didn’t want my 7-year old son to lose his father, like I had lost mine at 3 weeks old.

The next thing I was conscious of was my mother’s voice.  But she lived in Philly and I was in Los Angeles, so where was I?   MAYBE I HAD DIED.  Then I heard some voices and I realized I couldn’t see, I was blind.  I didn’t know it, but my eyelids had been taped shut.  I heard a woman’s voice saying, “he’s conscious now, he’s awake”.  She peeled the tape off of my eyelids.  They had been taped shut because the doctors had given me so much adrenaline my eyelids wouldn’t close and my eyeballs would’ve dried up and cracked.  My throat was in excruciating pain.  The doctors had just taken the ventilator out of my throat after two days of having it breathe for me to keep me alive.

I later found out the hospital had called my mother in Philadelphia and told her that she had better be on the next flight to LA, because there was a 50/50 chance she’d be flying home with my dead body.  I must admit, I can’t imagine a worse nightmare for a mother than being alone on an airplane for six hours, not knowing if her son was dead or alive.  I did get to make amends to her 6 years before she died. The hospital also told me that if it was 7am and not 6am when the ambulance was called, I would have died in traffic on Riverside at 7am.

When I was released 4 days later, the thought of quitting never crossed my mind not even for a split second.  My only harm-reduction lifestyle decision was to switch from Vodka to Bombay Gin.  Such is the grip addiction can have on one’s raison d’etre – drinking and drugging was all I knew.

I didn’t get sober for 7 more years.

7 years after almost dying I drove myself to a 28-day program called the Betty Ford Center not to get clean and sober but because I was having a nervous breakdown and I thought the cops were going to arrest me. But while I was there, I was struck sober. After doing the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous I realized I was a bit insane and suicidal, and I decided I wanted to live. I have not gotten high or taken a drink ever since – and that was 27 years ago. 

By the way, 21 years ago when my 19-year old son, Ben, said he needed help and wanted to go into treatment he too went to the Betty Ford Center for 28 days.  He was given a partial scholarship because I am an alumnus.  And since I barely graduated from high school,  and dropped out of Philadelphia Community College to go to the middle east to smuggle back hashish, it was nice to be an alumni from somewhere legit and not just a graduate of the streets. I made Ben borrow $3,000 from a family friend, to prove he was willing to make an investment in his recovery journey.  Ben too, hasn‘t gotten high or taken a drink in the past 21 years.  I can’t tell you as a parent how relieved I am to know he’s not driving drunk on New Year’s or putting strange pills in his mouth at concerts or raves. I wish I could have given my mother that gift.

I am also a recovering substance abuse counselor.  I worked on the front lines in Los Angeles for a number of years.  I worked in Malibu and I worked in the ‘hood.

One charged $30,000 a month and the other charged $3,000, and the success rate was about equal.  What I learned through my experience as a drug counselor is that it’s not what you tell your clients, it’s what you get them to tell themselves.

But why are we here?
Are we here to express outrage?
Are we here to express grief?
Are we here to express frustration?
Are we here to express gratitude for simply being alive?
Or are we here to express survivor’s guilt?

My God as much as there is an abundance of hard drugs in America, there seems to be a shortage of OUTRAGE. But I understand it’s hard to know what and who to be outraged against.  Especially when people die by their own hand.  I’m especially outraged by my own sense of hopelessness and pessimism.  I know we can always pick on Big Pharma. But what is the real reason so many Americans are killing themselves every day?  Are they addicted to escapism?  Searching for love? Trying to stop time?  Living the American Dream? Testing the limits of personal freedom as they are now being eroded by decree?

Are we here to express grief?  If you work in the treatment industry you must be used to living with grief and certainly if you ever lost a friend or a family member to drug overuse or cirrhosis of the liver, your grief must be gigantic.  How about random grief, like for the victims of the killings in Ukraine every day or Texas?

Are we here to express frustration?  I’m frustrated that some foolish people think the government cares about them, or that the current administration, or any administration is gonna turn the tide on these tens of thousands of fatal overdoses every year.

Are we here to express gratitude for being alive?  YES, I LOVE LIFE.  The blessing of having been born a human is an unfathomable miracle.  Maybe God is life.  Maybe God is nature.  Maybe God is love. And for me to have been reborn clean and sober in 1994, that is a gift I will never give back.

Maybe we are here to express Survivor’s guilt?

Because I have a feeling that some of us in the room could have been tragic statistics.  But we would have been more than statistics to our loved ones, to our children, to our families and especially to our parents.

I was asked to come here and talk about a more uplifting subject. Movies.  I founded the Reel Recovery Film Festival and Symposium in 2008 in Los Angeles Since then, we have produced this “Recovery event” in many cities in the US and Canada.  We have audience discussions after every film.

We have found that recovering addicts, those still using and those on the cusp appreciate attending an event that is not preachy or dogmatic but a safe and comfortable place to talk about the art of film, and their current emotional states regarding addiction and recovery.  If you want to bring the RRFF to your city or town, please contact me anytime. 

I think every media report of a fatal overdose should include the victim’s photo and pictures of their family, because we know addiction doesn’t just affect the identified patient it affects their family, their friends, and the entire fabric of our society.  It’s the ones left behind that we should feel the most compassion for-because if someone dies from their excessive drug and alcohol use, they’re on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.  But their loved ones will mourn for a lifetime.

In closing, a couple suggestions I would make is to create a Department Of Healing,  or Department of Recovery, or just a department of Kindness, so that when anyone calls an 800 number and asks for help, there would be a no-cost treatment bed ready for them in 24 hours. We know that the willingness to seek help doesn’t always last long.

And I would have big billboards outside every high school in the country with the Text. FENTANYL KILLS  – The next pill you swallow, white powder you snort, shoot, smoke or lick COULD KILL YOU. It’s your choice to live or DIE. And have a photo or a corpse-like manikin hanging from the billboard. I sorely pray that after this conference, ideas will turn into action, and action into realty.  ALSO, every cop car and ambulance should have Narcan on hand, as should Rave and Concert promoters should ALL be required to keep Narcan available. DECRIMALIZE ALL DRUGS. If pure heroin was available at CVS, no one would score from the corner dealer who might be selling shit cut with fentanyl.

Please allow me to end with a quote:

The great Brooklyn poet, Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” AND SO DO YOU. And from Herman Hesse, please let’s NEVER forget “The little joys of life.”