Before the heroin epidemic became a nationwide problem, claiming thousands of lives, Plano, Texas, was already entrenched.
And like many of the places caught in the crosshairs of the continuing heroin crisis, Plano is the last place that one would expect to be swept into the opioid tidal wave.
Texas-native Belita Nelson, for six years she termed herself the “chief propagandist” — or spokeswoman — for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Before that, as a Plano mother and teacher, Belita noticed what was happening in her community.
She described Plano as an area rivaling Newtown, Connecticut, or Cape Cod — tight-knit regions where tragedy strikes hard and deep.
She explained that “[Plano] has the best school districts in the state of Texas…it’s a gated community. And in 1998, for heroin to be that prevalent in the community was stunning. Stunning. We got all the media attention because we were this upscale Texas neighborhood that nobody thought would be inundated with heroin.”
Nelson decided to take action, saying, “I decided I’d had it. I was going to organize my community and fight this thing at the grassroots level. But we were never grassroots because the first thing I did was go on the Oprah show for the DEA.”
Belita stresses that she was never officially employed by the DEA but traveled for six years as a sort of unofficial spokeswoman for the agency. The group recruited her because their goals aligned, and in many ways, she was perfect for the role.
She was a mother who had witnessed the toll of heroin first-hand. She was passionate and knew what she was talking about. Belita spoke to schools and parent groups and appeared on television networks.
With the help of a former Dallas Cowboy, she founded the Starfish Foundation to tackle heroin addiction. That organization ran until 2004 when one of the employees pocketed the donation money and left the foundation scrambling in the dark.
Belita was hesitant to speak too openly but mentioned that when she first went to work with the DEA (she was contacted and became familiar with agency’s goals), she was told “‘Marijuana is safe, we know it’s safe, but it’s our cash cow and we will never, ever, give it up.’”
When the DEA seizes a car or makes a drug bust, it’s likely they’ll find wads of money. They turn in the pot (or other drugs) — and keep the cash.
Belita, like many people, posits that the DEA is not willing to give up the long disproven idea that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Unlike heroin, most people are open to trying marijuana.
At high school or college parties, it’s much more likely that a joint is being passed around than a needle. While a joint conjures up images of Bob Weir or SOJA on stage, a needle brings to mind a lifeless Philip Seymour Hoffman or Basquiat.
Belita cut ties with the DEA in 2004 after becoming frustrated with the system and the government’s need to keep marijuana criminalized, despite knowledge that the drug was safe.
While at the Starfish Foundation, Belita heard time and time again the tale of pot-smoking teenagers who were pushed into heroin simply because marijuana carries harsh penalties. And it’s a story that’s been told repeatedly.
Today Belita works for the Gridiron Cannabis Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting CTE, concussions, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, neuropathy, dementia, chronic inﬂammation, Leukemia, and brain and other cancers. But the group’s pockets that only stretch so far.
In contrast, her opposition — and the opposition of anyone fighting the heroin epidemic and hoping to legalize marijuana — are big pharma companies.
Recently, we’ve seen pharma companies hit the grassroots to secure influence. CSGlobe and a number of other news outlets recently reported on an opioid company pumping half a million dollars into Arizona anti-marijuana groups in an effort to keep the plant illegal.
These sorts of campaigns do not serve the dead in Plano and the hundreds of thousands around the nation suffering from opioid addiction.
Rather, they benefit CEOs and pharmaceutical groups who have invested millions in developing drugs that minimize pain. Unfortunately, they come with a dangerously high likelihood of addiction.
Big pharma corporations see dollar signs in every painkiller that moves across a counter, but some of which could easily be replaced by marijuana, which is increasingly proven to help decrease pain.
So the American consumer, from Plano, Texas, to Portland, Maine, is faced with the dilemma — is it better to be a living Bob Weir or a dead Basquiat?