Drugs

Drug Overdose Is Only Tragic When It Happens to a Rich White Celebrity

"Glee" star Corey Monteith's drug death was a mainstream media tragedy, while lesser known DeAndre McCullough was dubbed a drug abuser.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Randy Miramontez

The death of 31-year-old "Glee" star Corey Monteith shocked millions of fans around the world and produced a torrent of articles examining his life and death. Monteith overdosed on a combination of heroin and alcohol.

The mainstream media treats the overdose deaths of young, white, rich celebrities in the prime of their lives as a tragedy, not something they brought on themselves or are responsible for. The British Columbia Coroners Service immediately released a statement saying, "There is absolutely nothing at this point, no evidence to suggest this is anything but the most sad and tragic accident."

No articles referred to Monteith as a junkie, dope fiend, addict, drug abuser or criminal. Journalists wrote with sympathy about his troubled teen years and his struggles with addiction starting at age 13.

Last year another young actor, less well known than Monteith, died from an overdose of heroin. His name was DeAndre McCullough and he played bit roles in David Simon’s “The Wire” and “The Corner.” McCullough, who was black, started dealing and using drugs at the age of 15 on the streets and corners of Baltimore. Simon and co-writer Edward Burns chronicled McCullough’s turbulent world in their book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. But press accounts of McCullough’s death didn’t describe it as tragic. One headline read, “DeAndre McCullough, Drug Dealer Who Inspired ‘The Corner,’ Dies at 35,” and anotherproclaimed, “A Better Life Eternally Eluded the Boy From ‘The Corner.’”

Most articles frontloaded McCullough’s past as a drug dealer, saying that he, like his mother and father, was an “abuser of cocaine and heroin,” and that just before his death warrants were out for his arrest.

Cory Monteith’s overdose death was portrayed as a profound loss that could and should have been prevented. McCullough’s death was discussed as inevitable after a long struggle with an “addiction that won out” or as another account put it, “a demon inside of him that he couldn’t get rid of.” A prominent piece in the New York Times ended by declaring, “His addiction had finally swallowed him whole.”

The lives of McCullough and Monteith were oceans apart and show in black and white how race and class impact addiction. Most likely, Monteith had someone buy heroin for him, which allowed the well-known actor to avoid the violence of the world of illegal drugs and evade the risk of arrest, as well as all the other negative, life-long consequences of a felony drug conviction. His pay for "Glee" was between $30K and $50K per episode, and with personal appearances and endorsements, Monteith was a millionaire.

When Monteith was ready to enter a drug rehabilitation program he could get in right away: No waiting lists for celebrities with cash. The war on drugs dragnet would not capture Monteith.

It was not so for McCullough. At every point his addiction was criminalized and punished. He had to score drugs the way the poor do—hustling on the streets, dealing drugs and constantly dodging beatings or bullets. Passages in The Corner describe how McCullough used his drugs in alleyways, abandoned buildings, and in shooting galleries, not in private, $500-a-night rooms at luxury hotels like Monteith did. Most likely, McCullough was uninsured, so if he wanted treatment he would have waited on a list for months. And the drug warriors who occupied his corner trained their guns on his bombed-out netherworld and eventually caught him.

Racism, poverty and the criminalization of drug use set McCullough up to sell, use and to die from a heroin overdose. The 35-year-old who didn’t think he’d make it past the age of 20 belongs to the most demonized, despised and disposable demographic in America: poor, black, male and addicted.  

But Monteith and McCullough shared one thing; both were victims of an outdated, science-rejecting, religion-based drug treatment system that proselytizes abstinence-only 12-step fellowship, actively opposes the prescription of methadone and buprenorphine, and punishes relapse with discharge or prison.    

Maia Szalavitz, a columnist for the website The Fix, wrote an article on how the abstinence-only, “tough love” drug treatment system failed Monteith. The actor was confronted and shamed during an intervention arranged by Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of "Glee." Monteith then reportedly flew to Antigua and entered Crossroads, Eric Clapton’s posh and expensive ($27,000 for 29 days) drug rehab center. Szalavitz excoriated the so-called drug experts who led the intervention for evidently not discussing the option of taking methadone or buprenorphine with Monteith and instead recommended Crossroads, a 12-step program that eschews maintenance medications.

In contrast, year after year, McCullough cycled in and out of poorly funded public drug treatment programs. His short life was punctuated by stretches of abstinence and then total relapse. According to press accounts in the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times, it appears that McCullough wasn’t in a methadone program nor was he prescribed buprenorphine. For someone addicted to opiates for two decades, as McCullough was, and with his consistent history of relapse, either medication should have been the first treatment choice, not abstinence. Instead, he ended up in abstinence-based, 12-step treatment programs like Mountain Manor Treatment Center.

The U.S. drug treatment system is an utter disaster and has been for decades. It is fragmented, bureaucratic, chronically underfunded and staffed by former drug users who have minimal education, training or supervision. According to a recent studyby the National Center on Addiction and Substance Use at Columbia University, “Most of those who are currently providing addiction treatment are not medical professionals and are not equipped with the knowledge, skills, or credentials to provide the full range of evidence-based services to address addiction effectively.”

To put it bluntly, they don’t know what they’re doing. These ex-drug users have strong biases against methadone and buprenorphine, despite hundreds of studies over decades showing they are the most successful treatment for opiate addiction. They consider the use of these medications as “enabling” or “cheating” and use their power over drug users in their care to convince them not to take them. Researchers for the Columbia study found that, “One of the key predictors of the underutilization of pharmaceutical treatments is adherence of treatment providers to a strong 12-step ideology for addiction treatment.”

McCullough and Monteith were victims of the dysfunctional, outdated American drug treatment system. The pervasive stigma of taking maintenance medication and the failure of treatment programs to offer it without significant barriers bears much responsibility for both men’s deaths.   

The chain of events that led to McCullough’s overdose started when the Baltimore Police Department posted a photograph online of a man committing robberies at two pharmacies; it was McCullough. He had stolen bottles of morphine and oxycodone pills. Warrants went out for his arrest.

Over the years, David Simon had maintained a friendship with McCullough and consistently helped him when he relapsed. According to one of Simon’s blog entries, DeAndre’s mother, Fran, convinced her son to turn himself in but: “DeAndre pleaded for the chance to get clean first, to sober up before surrendering and going to City Jail. He did not want to detox in pretrial detention; he couldn’t stomach the thought of being sick in those spartan, unforgiving surroundings. Once sober, he would surrender….”

For a few weeks, McCullough was at Turek House, another abstinence-based, 12-step program, but left before completing treatment. A few days later he was found dead.

McCullough rightly feared a brutal, cold-turkey detox in jail while awaiting arraignment. That should never happen, but because of harsh attitudes toward the drug-addicted and a sick desire to punish, it does every day. Methadone or buprenorphine (also known by the brand names Suboxone or Subutex) should be readily available to the incarcerated just like other essential medications are.   

If DeAndre McCullough had been prescribed buprenorphine or had immediately been given access to methadone, he might not have reached the depths of despair, which led him to risk it all and rob two pharmacies for opiates so he wouldn’t go into withdrawal. What kind of a society denies addicted and vulnerable people life-saving medication and puts them in no-win situations where they have to commit crimes just to feel normal?

Helen Redmond is a freelance journalist and a drug and health policy analyst.