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Steve Springer

Death by Drugs Have Sounded a New Alarm

July 06, 1986|Steve Springer

It was just a casual, private conversation. But to Dr. David Lewis, it was more significant than all the public pronouncements about ending drug abuse.

It was shortly after the death last week of Don Rogers, the Cleveland Browns defensive back and former UCLA star who died of a cocaine overdose. Lewis was talking to his 11-year-old son, Matt.

"I heard another guy died," Matt said. "Don't they know drugs will hurt you?"

His father smiled. The message was getting through.

Dr. David Lewis spends his working hours trying to get that message across. Along with therapist Rex Fine, Lewis runs the ASAP (Adult Substance Abuse Program) Family Treatment Program at Van Nuys Community Hospital.

For many drug users already in over their heads, Lewis doesn't see the recent deaths from cocaine of Rogers and University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias acting as a deterrent.

"Many of these people," Lewis said, "have destroyed their families, their finances and their emotions and they still use drugs. They are able to deny to themselves the harmful effects. When somebody dies, they have that same capacity to deny. If they are already destroying their lives, seeing their friends or others going down the tubes isn't going to stop them."

It hasn't in the past.

"Other famous people have died from drugs--John Belushi, Kennedy," said Fine, referring to Robert F. Kennedy's son David. "These latest deaths will be remembered by the sports community. Others will forget."

The lessons provided by Bias and Rogers won't be so easily skipped over, however, by the next generation, a generation that has yet to commit itself to this deadly vice.

"These kids are impressionable," Lewis said. "They've been hearing drugs may be fun. Now they are hearing that drugs may kill. If anything good comes out of this, it will be an awareness of the effects of drugs."

Lewis disputes the message being sent out through the media that the cocaine that killed Bias, and perhaps Rogers, was a newer, more deadly strain of the drug currently on the market.

"It was pharmaceutical coke," he said. "You can go within 10 minutes of where you are right now and buy the same stuff."

Said Fine: "The cocaine is probably less potent than it was several years ago because it's cut up so many ways."

But if the cocaine has changed, so has the message.

"Ten years ago," Lewis said, "there was a fair amount of literature around that said cocaine was non-addicting and a great high. That got people to want to use it at a party. They'd hear all this stuff and want to try it. It was a myth that recreated itself. Cocaine is actually one of the most addicting drugs and can kill you two or three different ways.

"People using it know this happens. They have friends who die. We have one recovering user who is working with us as a counselor. He lost six friends in one year from drugs."

This, according to Fine, is where denial comes in.

"The addict will tell himself, 'It won't happen to me,' " Fine said. "Addiction is an illness. I wouldn't use what happened to Bias and Rogers as an example. The addict would already have an answer. He might say, 'They must have done too much.' That's a very common reaction.

"Five years ago, we were telling people what cocaine could do. Three years ago, I was saying there is no such thing as recreational use of cocaine. People would tell me, 'Sure there is.' It takes people a long time to change. People don't want to believe nicotine or alcohol are bad for you. It takes a long time to change belief patterns."

Lewis said it didn't take Bias much time at all to get his hands on cocaine.

"He probably didn't even have to pay for the stuff he got," Lewis said. "The word on the street is that it was fronted to him. It works like any company looking for new buyers. What they were trying to do was to build up another person they could sell to. A player will keep his mouth shut, has money and would be a constant buyer. That's great for the pushers."

There is another myth Lewis would like to dispel.

"People say, 'If I have this much cocaine, it won't kill me because it took more to kill Len Bias and Don Rogers,' " Lewis said. "We don't know who it will kill and who it won't kill. What might kill you might not kill me."

Lewis has seen one tangible result from the Bias and Rogers deaths. The number of calls on his treatment center hot line has doubled in recent weeks. Most of the callers are users who are experiencing symptoms they think are similar to those of Bias and Rogers in the last minutes of their lives.

"The big thing is the kids are watching and listening. That's important," Lewis said. "Many of the people who are older still think it's OK to use drugs because they heard that five or 10 years ago. But the kids of today are learning that it's not non-addictive, that it can kill you."

That's a fact Len Bias chose to ignore despite the evidence before him.

So did Don Rogers, even though he also had the evidence of Bias' fate before him.

They're both gone now, but they've left a legacy--for Matt Lewis and anybody else who is listening.

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