SNL spoof proves nothing goes well with heroin, including laughs

Controversial sketch exposes absurdity of Big Pharma culture

No joke—heroin is mainstream.

In American culture, few things gauge the public consciousness quite like Saturday Night Live, which makes a business of satirically highlighting what's on our minds. Sometimes in ways that make us laugh. Sometimes in ways that make us cringe. Often in ways that make us laugh and cringe.

That was certainly the case this weekend, when SNL aired a fake commercial for "medicine" called Heroin AM, a combination of heroin, caffeine and cocaine—designed to help parents get high and, at the same time, stay productive. Heroin, of course, produces a rush that is typically followed by drowsiness. Caffeine and cocaine, on the other hand, are stimulants. And the dangerous combination of heroin and cocaine is sometimes called a "speedball."

I watched the spoof live as it aired. And, to be honest, I did laugh. I also had a knot in my stomach—my body's way of questioning whether I ought to be laughing.

Sadly, heroin has been on our minds a lot lately. Eighty-one Americans die every day from heroin and prescription opioids, the result of an alarming 17-year rise in use. Fueled by this rise, drug overdoses have now claimed almost a half million Americans since 2000. Yes, a half million.

My wonderful mother is one of those people, lost to this epidemic only a year ago, after accidentally taking a lethal dose of heroin's legal cousin—prescription opioids—which she had been taking post-knee surgery and for years prior, due to chronic pain.

It's an incredible American tragedy that only in the last couple of years has come to light, largely due to the gallant advocacy of loved ones who have decided that keeping this a secret is self-defeating and no longer acceptable. We have raised our voices and gotten the attention of community leaders, health care providers, governors, state lawmakers and even Congress and the President. Given the shroud of secrecy enveloping addiction for so many years, it has been an impressive display of grassroots activism.

So, in the hours and days following SNL's mock commercial, I was not surprised to get several emails from people wondering what I thought, wondering what Hazelden Betty Ford thought. I was not surprised to see social media flooded with emotional responses from this now consequential constituency of Americans committed to reducing the impact of addiction across our country.

Most reacted like my colleague William Moyers, one of the nation's leading voices on these issues, who said:

"I found it appalling. With nothing redeeming about it, especially when you consider that young people don't always grasp or appreciate the nuances. I don't think viewers will go out and experiment with heroin or think it is okay to use. But that's not the point; when an influential media outlet jokes about a drug that is killing people in unprecedented numbers, it does nothing to help prevent such deaths."

Or like this Hazelden Betty Ford follower on Facebook, who wants corrective action:

"So disappointed in Saturday Night Live. Did anyone just see that skit? We all need to complain about this!!! Heroin is nothing to joke about!! I'm done with Saturday Night Live. They owe us a public apology!!"

Another colleague, Marty Harding, who helps Hazelden Betty Ford mobilize communities around confronting the opioid crisis, had a more mixed reaction:

"My husband and I saw this SNL skit and had an immediate gut reaction to the glorification of heroin being labeled as something you do to "have fun" and "let loose" and addiction as something that is both hilarious and survivable. But I have mixed feelings about it. The overall tenor of the piece is light-hearted and funny, but the horrifying darkness also presents the truth about heroin and cocaine in typical SNL satire. It implicates the pharmaceutical industry (with a ludicrous Heroin AM and Cocaine PM product) and shows the stark reality of what can happen to anyone, anywhere: addiction, death, impact on daily function, ones' family appearing as monsters. It ends with a mom, high on heroin and cocaine, driving off with a school bus of children. So what begins with humor ends with both explicit and implicit tragedy."

Major media picked up on the story right away, from the Washington Post to the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.

My own reaction, like Marty's, was mixed, and quite frankly, I'm still reflecting.

Heroin AM

Saturday Night Live satire touches a nerve while exposing absurdity of our Big Pharma culture.

Generally speaking, I'm not for any limits on the rich American tradition of satire. Satire is much more than a constitutionally protected exercise of free speech. It is a crafty means of exposing important issues and getting the attention of people who might not otherwise pay attention. And there is no doubt this skit extended the conversation on heroin and opioids to a broader audience. In the backhanded manner of satire, it provided a new platform on which to decry the tragedy before us.

While it's not at all surprising that people were offended—especially those who have lost loved ones and others whose loved ones are currently in the grip of opioids—that reaction is perhaps part of the grand aim in such a sketch. It's a painful watch by design. A critical message cloaked or disguised with humor so that more people will listen and discuss.

Let's also not forget the other painful reality that was depicted: A "speedball" as medicine is not a far cry from heroin as medicine, which Americans pick up at the pharmacy every day in the form of drugs like oxycodone and morphine.

This sketch effectively exposes the absurdity of our quick-fix culture, and Big Pharma's efforts to help us have it all ways, always. Drug use is more than a health issue, after all. Certainly more than a criminal issue. It's a cultural issue too. And this gets at that.

I suppose there's a small chance this comedy bit could subtly make heroin seem OK, normal or fun—the very last thing we need. On the other hand, my contrary reaction was that it sent the message: you cannot do heroin and expect to be a productive human being. In that satiric sense, one could see it as effectively stigmatizing heroin use, rather than casting it as benign or better. In contrast, the movie Born to be Blue, a biopic on jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, most certainly glorifies heroin use, depicting Baker at his creative best when high. To me, as a matter-of-fact piece and not a satirical one, that movie is more potentially damaging.

I wonder if some of our discomfort is rooted in the historical silence around addiction and drug use. Thankfully, we've gotten more comfortable talking about these issues, but, for the most part, only in the morbid context of death and loss. Politicians, for example, have almost come to be expected to share their family experiences with addiction, especially the tragedies. And the almost universal reaction today is compassion, which is marked progress, to be sure. But I don't think we're comfortable yet talking much beyond the deaths that are sure to elicit empathy. And when we turn the tide on the opioid crisis, we need to be comfortable talking about all of the addiction issues that remain. We don't like to confront the culture, for example, or to talk about the millions using substances problematically while not dying. And we need to. If the conversation around this sketch contributes to an ongoing evolution in our public and private dialogue around substance use and addiction, that could be valuable.

Perhaps SNL, having lost people like John Belushi and Chris Farley to overdose, felt on firmer ground taking its satire to this place. It's not as if SNL producers have escaped the devastation of trying to help people close to them, and losing them anyway. I suspect this satirical commercial was considered carefully, and that the backlash was anticipated.

At the same time, I think it would be incredibly impactful for SNL to air a moment of silence next week, or some other sort of PSA, perhaps in tribute to the disease that has taken its cast members and is now taking thousands of others.

America absolutely needs to see the addiction epidemic for the serious issue it is. A half million of our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters are dead. It is absurd. It offends me. And my heart is with every last person affected. We will continue to come together as advocates seeking change.

Yes, the SNL spoof proved nothing goes well with heroin—not caffeine, not cocaine, and not even laughs. But, I don't think the ultimate objective was humor. It was this conversation.


Jeremiah Gardner, Mgr of Public Affairs and AdvocacyJeremiah Gardner, manager of public affairs and advocacy at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is a person in long-term recovery with a master's degree in addiction studies and a background in journalism, public affairs, business and music.
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