The drug world: taming a wild frontier


Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

As a collegian in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and therefore a 40-plus year observer of drug use and abuse in America, I can’t help but reflect with amazement on the changes I’ve seen. It’s as if the drug world has turned upside down:

  • Marijuana has gone from “Reefer Madness” to being viewed by many as a miracle drug that appears to be rapidly on its way to full legal status, treating many things, like epileptic seizures in children
  • Heroin has gone from an urban ghetto drug to rampant and deadly use in affluent suburbs
  • Opium has gone from a rarely seen substance, to its prescription opioid derivatives sitting in bowls for the taking in NFL training rooms as well as becoming the number 1 source of American drug addiction and death
  • Doctors, not drug dealers, are the now the most prolific narcotics distributors in America

Across America, drug overdoses now kill more Americans drugsthan guns or cars do. According to a recent New York Times editorial, this stems from the mid-90s when pharmaceutical companies argued that doctors were under-treating pain and aggressively marketed opioids like OxyContin.

Even after executives of the company that made OxyContin pleaded guilty to a variety of criminal charges, profits still rolled in, and many users who could no longer get or afford prescriptions for it turned to heroin, which is cheaper and produces the same effect.

Here are a few examples of the non-recreational variety:

  • A.D.H.D drugs, often unnecessarily prescribed, are an $11 billion a year industry
  • Antipsychotic drug prescriptions for children have grown 7-fold in the last 20 years
  • Johnson & Johnson registered $30 billion in sales of Risperdal before paying a $2 billion penalty for deceptively marketing its dangerous side effects for children

It goes without saying, of course, that prescription drugs are literally lifesavers. And when wonderful medications aren’t curing malaria, lowering cholesterol or blood pressure and preventing heart attacks, antipsychotic drugs are also helping millions of people of all ages with mental illnesses to lead productive, happy lives.

That’s why solving this problem is so difficult, and to solve it we have return to our core principles and values about how prescription medicines should be used. When New Oakland’s founder, the late Dr. Ismail Sendi, opened the doors to the first of New Oakland’s now seven locations in the early 90’s, prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to children was viewed as a very delicate matter. According to Harvard psychiatrist and former director of the National Institute of Mental health, Dr. Steven Hyman, “Children, because their brains are still developing, are not just small adults.”

As Dr. Sendi continually reminded us, a deep and thorough mental health diagnosis the only way to bridge the potentially deadly gap between the right medication and unnecessary over-prescription or the wrong prescription.

Today, New Oakland medical director, Dr. David Harris, carries on that essential philosophy.“We treat each patient and family individually after our extensive diagnostic procedures,” says Dr. Harris.  “Our team of doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and therapists determine what the best course of treatment might be and whether medication needs to be part of the solution.”


In respect and deference to Dr. Sendi’s example, New Oakland continually strives to be a standard bearer of proper procedure, always putting the patient’s health and safety first when it comes to prescribing medications.

It’s because in a rapidly changing landscape for both the proper use and abuse of medications, rigorously following that philosophy can often be of life and death consequence.