In his private cubicle in the plush, carpeted offices of the National Journal, David C. Morrison has a photo of himself accepting an award from Gerald R. Ford at the National Press Club.
In nearly a decade at the high-toned public policy journal, Morrison has prowled the halls of the Pentagon, worked the corridors of Capitol Hill and carved out a reputation as one of the most dogged journalists in Washington.
He is also a recovering heroin addict.
Even as Morrison was making his reporting rounds, he was ducking into men’s rooms and sticking a needle in his arm every four to six hours. Let him tell about it:
“Scoring a brick of junk-five bundles, or 50 ten-dollar bags-I’m up in Spanish Harlem, wading through the crack vials that litter 124th and Lex like pebbles on a beach in hell. Deal done, I fix in the john of a greasy spoon on Third Avenue. Heading back on Amtrak to D.C., I don a suit to interview a House committee chairman. One night I’m compulsively mixing and fixing speedballs by candlelight in a roach-infested shooting gallery on Avenue C. The next afternoon I’m gassing away on a panel discussion at one of Washington’s more strait-laced think tanks.”
These words are part of an anguished, funky, obscenity-filled confession that Morrison wrote--anonymously--in the Washington City Paper. The 20,000-word piece in January had people buzzing as to the identity of the reporter who said he had blown $50,000 on crack and heroin in just a few months.
Morrison, 41, who has been clean since a weeklong hospitalization last June, agreed to discuss his drug problem publicly for the first time. He says he considered going public when writing the piece but had no desire to join the “Oprah” circuit.
“I didn’t want to be the center of a flaming controversy,” he said. “I didn’t want to be part of the electronic media mulching machine. The machine can get churning and it chews people up. . . . I’m pretty repelled by this orgy of confessionalism. I don’t feel like a victim.”
At the same time, he said, he wanted to paint a stark picture of drug abuse without preaching or moralizing. “It was something I felt compelled to do, while all the emotions were raw.”
The City Paper article provides a rare glimpse of what Morrison describes as a significant subculture of middle-class drug addicts in the nation’s capital.
“Reasonably well-raised white people with everything to lose are still getting hooked on crack, smack, you name it,” he wrote. “I’ve met scores of people much like me. Journalists. Doctors. Lawyers. Designers. Consultants. Bureaucrats. Executives. Republicans. I have sat in my dealer’s kitchen and watched the evening rush hour of civil servants picking up their $50 bags of junk or chunks of rock.”
Federal authorities estimate that 2.7 million Americans are hard-core drug users, about 600,000 of them heroin addicts. But because statistics tend to be based on arrests and hospital admissions, no one knows for sure how many are white-collar professionals.
“My guess is there’s a lot more middle-class heroin use now than there was a decade ago,” said Mark Kleiman, a drug expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “People I talk to, who treat heroin abuse by rich folks, tell me there’s a lot more of it among the young, trendy CEO class.”
But affluent addicts are largely invisible in the press. “The picture of drug use you get through the media is dark-skinned people in ghettos, since that’s where most of the arrests are,” Morrison said. “The ghetto dealers are the only people desperate enough to run all the risks of supplying drugs to society, including people like me. But crack has cut an enormous swath through middle-class society.”
After months of handing over wads of cash on dimly lit street corners, Morrison, like any seasoned Beltway operator, found a more efficient way. “A friend in New York now scores smack and coke for me, shipping it to Washington by Federal Express,” he wrote. “Soon I’m wiring him a thousand bucks a week. . . . I financed my habit the American way: I put it on plastic.”
He slid uneasily between the glittering marble of official Washington and the shadowy nether world of illicit drugs. “Early one morning, I appear on one of C-SPAN’s viewer call-in programs. . . . Let’s just say I hadn’t exactly gotten my beauty rest the night before. “What do you know about anything?’ asks a crazed but perceptive viewer from Atlanta. “Your hair’s a mess. Your tie’s undone. You look like you just came in from a party.’ I was up late working on a story, I respond lamely.”
Now, puffing on a Camel Light over lunch at a downtown hotel, Morrison struggles with the notion of public exposure. He will not pose for a picture. He worries that his disclosure will make his military and defense sources uncomfortable. He is an openly gay man, but he finds it harder to come out of this particular closet.
With his spiky black hair, denim jacket, jeans and boots, Morrison seems slightly out of place as a reporter for the National Journal, which caters to the capital elite for $889 per annual subscription.
Morrison told his editors about his addiction from his hospital bed, and they have been supportive. Under the policy of the magazine’s parent company, Times Mirror, he is enrolled in a 12-step recovery program and goes to meetings every night. He also attends after-care sessions twice a week at the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
“He’s gradually been getting back up to speed,” said Michael Wright, the National Journal’s executive editor. “He’s his old feisty self again.”
Morrison’s wicked sense of humor has made him a popular member of the staff. His voice mail message invites callers to “leave any classified information or divulge your darkest secrets.” When the editors began issuing a weekly critique called Feedback, Morrison started circulating a satiric version that had his colleagues in stitches.
“We’re glad to see him healthy and alive and not out on the street,” said reporter Graeme Browning. “Every time someone mentions David, it’s almost in awe-struck tones that he has had the courage to face such a debilitating problem and try to wrestle it to the ground.”
There was a rather prosaic reason that David Morrison was spending $500 a day on heroin and coke. “That was the maximum cash withdrawal I could make on my ATM machine,” he said.
For many of those caught in the downward spiral of drug abuse, financing their habit becomes a daily obsession that can quickly lead to crime and impoverishment. But as a single man who did a lot of free-lance writing, Morrison had a sizable nest egg to pay for crack and smack. His problem was maintaining the veneer of an ordinary journalist’s life.
While patrolling the national security beat, Morrison routinely interviewed military officials, defense contractors, members of Congress and arms control experts. Most of the time he was carrying a small bag with syringes, cotton, a metal spoon and a water-filled pill bottle. He drew the line at bringing drugs into the Pentagon, but only because he thought he might get caught.
The son of a Minneapolis Star columnist who had a drinking problem, Morrison got an early education in substance abuse. He started getting drunk at 12, smoking pot at 14 and then moved on to the harder stuff, eventually shooting heroin. He says he tripped on psychedelics more than 350 times. Some of his friends ended up in prison, or dead.
Morrison left the drug world behind when he moved to New York, graduating from Columbia University in 1978 and then earning a master’s in journalism. He came to Washington in 1982, parlaying an internship at the Center for Defense Information into a full-time job with the liberal think tank. Three years later, his expertise on military affairs led him to the National Journal.
Morrison’s reporting drew attention in policy-making circles. He disclosed major problems with the Navy’s A-12 attack plane, which the Defense Department canceled the following year. He won a New York University award for exploring the difficulties in disposing of chemical weapons.
Morrison’s groundbreaking reporting on the Pentagon’s secret “black budget” drew him into a controversy in 1988, when the National Journal complained that a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the subject in the Philadelphia Inquirer should have credited Morrison’s earlier work. The Inquirer denied borrowing from Morrison’s stories, and the Pulitzer board found no cause to question the award.
Morrison started dabbling in drugs again in 1989, and within two years he was regularly shooting heroin and coke. “I started losing interest in my work,” he said. “A lot of my friends were dying of AIDS. Life became overwhelming. The psychological and emotional chickens were coming home to roost.”
Life as a junkie reporter had its surreal aspects. Once, while interviewing an assistant secretary who was part of the Bush Administration’s war on drugs, Morrison started to roll up his sleeves--until he realized his arms were full of needle marks.
“People have this idea that if you’re on heroin, you’re kind of slumped over in a puddle,” he said. “I’m not arguing you’re working up to your potential when you’re junked out, but it’s not incapacitating. . . . As a journalist, there’s a million excuses for being away from the office.” He likened his routine to the alcoholic who keeps working after a liquid lunch, except that he had no problem with gin-scented breath.
Claiming to be “working” at home, Morrison filed fewer and fewer stories. The magazine cut him some slack because he had been a star employee for so long. National Journal editors knew he was in therapy. “We thought there was a problem of some kind,” Wright said, but had no idea he was using drugs.
Morrison went cold turkey six times, struggling through the ordeal of withdrawal, then slipping back into addiction. He remained clean for several months during a 1993 fellowship in Hawaii. But after a stop in Zurich, he smuggled half an ounce of brown Afghani heroin past Customs at Baltimore Washington International.
Life became increasingly isolated. “People who use drugs are basically pretty scummy,” Morrison said. “You can’t trust other people and they don’t trust you.”
He maxed out on his $7,500 credit card limit. Depression turned to despair. As he described his existence in the City Paper: “Can’t see living without dope. Damn. Can’t see living. . . . Back to basics. Screw showering. Screw shaving. Screw eating. Feed that monkey.”
As he went into his “final meltdown,” Morrison said: “I was as miserable as a human being could be. I was out of money and about to lose my job.”
In the throes of a withdrawal so debilitating he could not control his bowels, Morrison checked into the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital last June. He called his editors. The long, arduous process of recovery had begun.
Morrison soon began talking to Jack Shafer, then editor of the City Paper, about writing of the ordeal. “He did not look real healthy,” Shafer said. “He was sweaty and pasty. But he had a very precise idea of the kind of piece he wanted to write. David is just a supremely talented writer. My only contribution was patience.”
The article was titled “Me & My Monkey: Confessions of a White-Collar Dope Fiend.” Photocopies were quickly circulated around the National Journal office. The Chicago Reader reprinted the story.
The writing was cathartic, but Morrison was still struggling. “It seemed very unreal, parachuting back into this professional world and trying to figure out what was in the defense authorization bill, and not really caring.”