Chico, you’re the next caller …
A talk with Loveline‘s resident people-person, Dr. Drew Pinsky
Dr. Drew Pinsky is a busy man.
Right now, “Dr. Drew,” as he is popularly known, is calling the CN&R from his car phone as he races from his hometown of Pasadena to KROQ studios in Culver City for the night taping of his nearly 20-year-old, nationally syndicated radio call-in show, Loveline, which he hosts alongside Adam Carolla of Comedy Central’s The Man Show.
The quick-witted pair earned fame from the popular television version of Loveline that aired on MTV from 1996-2001. The candid and humorous show answered studio and call-in questions concerning human sexuality, addiction and youth-oriented health issues using a formula that mixed star guest power with Carolla’s refined toilet humor and Pinsky’s veteran medical experience.
A spokesperson for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Pinsky is a board certified internist and addictionologist who has written several books and spoken extensively at college campuses across the country. The best thing about hearing or watching him in any medium is that he immediately establishes trust with his listeners, mainly because he genuinely seems to care and give himself passionately to his work—traits that were evident when we spoke.
Will you be discussing your new book in Chico?
I am working on a new book, but the Chico talk is not about me, it’s about you, your school and your community. I meet with students beforehand, hear some issues; then I have three to four hours of material that I cram into an hour or so. I usually hit the drug and alcohol stuff. I do a presentation on how to listen to one’s instincts and how different instincts are, and attractions, how we live in a world where arousal is sort of the ultimate goal of each day, how the brain works, male-female stuff. There is some profound confusion there (laughs). Males and females are never farther apart then they are around college age. But we’ll see what kids want to talk about, and I’ll be ready.
Which of the arenas that you’re involved in do you find the most fulfilling?
Well, television is the most exciting because it’s such a powerful medium and it’s exciting to try to master it—figure out all these different things to do. Having said that, and having had a lot of fun doing that, radio I find more appropriate for what I do. It’s very much an intimate medium—a gritty, real medium. There’s no producing, no bullshit, it’s in real time.
You’re probably best known from MTV’s Loveline. I always thought Adam Carolla’s frat boy humor was an odd partner with your sense of purpose.
The idea that we’ve always worked from is that when you’re trying to get someone to take a pill—people who don’t want to hear more serious stuff—it’s like giving a dog a pill: You wrap it in Gainesburger. I understand guys have to be able to capture the eyes and ears of young people or I don’t get my message across at all … and I’m willing to ride in the Trojan horse to reach people that way.
I imagine it can be tough trying to guide kids through a culture that celebrates sex and drugs at increasingly early ages. Do you worry about your own kids (he has triplets)?
Well, thank god I have just one girl. I have two boys. Yeah, I’m scared shitless. Pathetically anxious. … But it’s not about parents, it’s about the kids. Parents should make their expectations clear as well as the consequences—then step back and let the cards fall.
Why do so many kids start drugs early nowadays? Are our brains wired to seek altered states of experience?
Well, there’s no doubt about that. Mammals seek to alter—humans especially. Whether spinning in a circle until you vomit when you’re 5 years old or sucking the glands of a Sonoran frog—think of the drive behind that! I want to know who the hell that first person was to squeeze the juice out of a frog’s eyeballs—that’s an opiate, a tremendous drug (laughs). It’s complicated stuff.
I will just say that there are two things you have to distinguish between: abuse and addiction. If you’re going to abuse a substance, are you going to harm yourself? The drugs that you young people are abusing are really scary! I have to deal with this shit later at the psychiatric hospital with brain damage and your limbic system being completely spent. It’s horrible.
If on the other hand you’re an addict, you’ve inherited a genetic tendency, and that’s a totally different problem. They ways you react, seek, and are reinforced by chemicals are completely different. If you have those genes, you have to protect them very carefully or you’re gonna be in big trouble. It won’t matter what you use. … I’ve always wanted to eliminate the term addiction and call it “reward activation disorder,” because that’s what it is: an amping up of the need for escalating reward.
Are you concerned about the plethora of anti-depressant drugs being rushed to the market?
Four years ago, all I got were questions about why AIDS drugs weren’t being rushed out here to help people. So things aren’t being rushed out, believe me. In terms of the use of anti-depressants, we are a pill society. But it’s complicated. These pills save lives; 20 percent of depressed people commit suicide. I don’t mind anti-depressants; they work. My problem is that insurance companies won’t pay for the more time-consuming, more dynamic and real interventions that are psycho-therapeutic and really about the growth of the human being. Instead, we give them a pill, or Band-Aid, that makes them OK for now—that kills me! I also have significant feelings about young people getting medicated. It’s pretty serious.
These days it seems as if general practitioners have the latest anti-anxiety drug posters on their walls instead of Norman Rockwell prints.
Well, the thing to watch out for is primary-care doctors slapping those medications on people—the insurance system and the drug companies put incredible pressures on doctors to do that. A well-trained psychiatrist would put a patient through a careful, diagnostic procedure. A PCP has no training in making that diagnosis. I have major issues with that. But that stuff is tough to discuss on these college tours; it’s a systems and a cultural issue. People get a choice of six years of therapy or a pill. They are not given a Life 101 lesson—a frame of reference. I mean, Loveline was the closest thing to that I ever saw (laughs).
Are you hopeful for stem cell research in combating viral problems inherent in AIDS and other STDs?
Those are exciting areas. But I’m much more interested in the global experience of the human being—tying together the spiritual, emotional, physical aspects of the human and helping people grapple with that or make meaning of that in a real way. When I watch TV now—everything is such bullshit. Everything is bullshit.
That’s why your show was good, because it dealt with real people. I don’t know why they canned it.
It could resurface again somewhere. But everything on TV now is bullshit. It makes me insane. I’m interested in, not necessarily the truth, but the real. And I think helping people understand what is and is not real is extremely important right now. We’re going into a crazy time in human history, and people don’t have a fundamental understanding of what’s driving them to make certain choices. Dr. Phil and Oprah are the answers to the time-honored questions.
Are younger generations less able to think critically? Now that we get kids completely raised in force-fed, market-shaped culture, video games and TV from birth—
Well, I will say that since 9-11 I’ve seen a distinct change in young people. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of anxiety, and when I ask people what has changed, they can’t tell me. But I go all over the country, and the clearest articulation of this is a desire to treat each other in a more humane way. People are interested in understanding each other. There’s a desire to treat each other better, and it is sweeping among cultures—a subtle turn of the battleship. It’s really significant in terms of influences on male/female relationships. For instance, in the Southeast colleges the most substantial change I’ve seen is the return of “the date.” There’s less “hooking up,” which is the other extreme, and more getting to know the person. I’ll talk in detail about this in Chico.
What’s your take on the medical marijuana debate?
Of course doctors should be able to prescribe this. I give morphine to morphine addicts when they’re dying of cancer if it makes them feel better. Why the fuck shouldn’t I be able to give them marijuana if that makes them feel better at a certain time in their demise. However, the actual initiative, or 215, that we all voted on was a complete sham. That bothers me that a sham was being perpetrated on the public in the name of getting one step closer to legalization. My thing is this: Why don’t we just have a legalization debate. Let’s just get it on, ‘cause it’s time.
I can’t have a rational discussion about this drug. People don’t want to hear my stories about marijuana syndrome. One out of five admissions to chemical-dependency hospitals in this country are for pot right now, but people don’t want to hear it because there’s so much political energy around that drug. That drives me crazy.
Yet there’s no doubt that marijuana is no worse than the abuse of alcohol. Compared to 400,000 tobacco deaths a year, it’s not even an issue. I think we should get over it and just legalize it. Take the ridiculous, pre-Elizabethan, draconian moralistic stuff out of the equation, figure out what works and make our laws accordingly.
But, you know, in every situation or use of marijuana that has been advocated there are at least five other medications that are better. I’ve had multiple requests for marijuana prescriptions from patients but never from non-marijuana addicts. And when I tell them I’m going to take the part that makes them high out, they’re not interested. … But it’s a tough issue: If the facts are unpopular, you just end up fighting with the crowd.
How did you get to be such a good speaker and what keeps you going?
I thank you. Radio helps you learn how to organize your thoughts and speak them clearly and quickly, so I’ve been doing that awhile. But I was not a good public speaker originally. About three years ago, I began speaking a lot more, and doing it obviously makes you better. Plus I love talking to young people. It’s really an honor—young people are so alive, and it’s such a pleasure.
The thing about me is that I have probably an unhealthy preoccupation with people. I really, really like people! (Laughs.) That is a blessing and a curse, but it is something that allows me a capacity to connect into other people’s lives.