Pipe Dreams and Promises

Last week I found out that someone I love very, very much was so addicted to drugs that he became homeless. It's the second time this has happened to me. I remember five years ago going to the wrecked apartment of a friend in the music industry. Clothes, garbage, and kitchenware were heaped across the floor. He was probably looking for an imaginary baggie of heroin that he thought he’d stashed in dirty jeans or the cookie jar. Some friends and I staged a mini-intervention and all but tied him to the seat of a plane to get him to rehab. He got clean, dirty, clean. He’s still battling.

Now the streets have claimed another person I care about. He’s also deeply creative, a musician. Troubled. Usually kind. It’s heroin. Maybe cocaine. I worry and pray.

Why do some of the most creative people immolate on drugs? Everyday Kurt Cobains, they slip into the routines of addiction like an old soft shoe. Maybe these dreamers are too bruised by today’s harsh realities to face them head on.

Most folks I know who experiment (or more) with illicit drugs are no more screwed up than average. It’s easy to call addicts weak and lazy. It’s harder to look at the role drugs play in all our lives.

The spectrum of drug use in America is broad and deep. In 1998, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey said alcohol caused the most drug violence. (Just watch “Cops.”) Five times as many Americans die from alcohol abuse as illicit/illegal drugs. The alcohol industry pays $2 billion a year to promote the consumption of beer, wine, and spirits. Increasingly, sweet malt beverages are snaring the 10 million underage drinkers.

Tobacco kills even more people. Switzerland's Addiction Research Institute notes that tobacco is the primary killer addiction worldwide and in America. In 2000, 4.9 million people across the world died from tobacco, 71 percent of drug-related deaths. The fact that it’s legal dulls many of us -- me included --- into thinking that nicotine is different. But at least two of my friends, both incredible women, have been cycling on and off tobacco like junkies battling the urge to shoot up. It comes down to this: Legal drugs, the most lethal, are taxable. Illegal drugs are not.

America’s drug laws are both draconian and racist. Even though white Americans consume the majority of illegal drugs, black and brown Americans -- a fraction of the population -- are the majority of those convicted for drug crimes.

Sometimes, as in the infamous Tulia, Texas cases, drugs are merely a pretext for railroading African-Americans. Two weeks ago, New York Magazine’s cover featured Lucy Grealy. Undergoing reconstruction for facial cancer, the author of "Autobiography of a Face" slipped from the bestseller lists into heroin addiction. Eric Breindel, the conservative New York Post editorial page editor who died from complications from his heroin addiction, has a scholarship named after him rather than a jail wing. This knowledge doesn’t change the fact that most of the people I see strung out on the streets -- shuffling, nodding, hollow-eyed -- look more like me than Grealy or Breindel. Money lets you hide your problems, and race and money are Siamese twins.

Our government’s response to drug use is to launch the new “Operation Pipe Dreams.” As we duct-tape our windows against bioterrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft has deployed 1,200 federal agents to catch businesses that encourage smoking up. Federal law bars the sale of products targeted towards illegal drug use, including bongs and marijuana pipes. (Just tell that to my nabe, the Village, head shop central.) So far, authorities have charged at least 55 stores and Internet retailers with selling illegal drug paraphernalia.

Paraphernalia is not the problem. Junkies can smoke off a spoon, snort coke from any reasonably flat surface, and what do you think most bodegas sell cigarette papers for? Maybe the issue is motivation.

In the past, and by a few people today, drugs were and are part of sacred rituals. Native American tribes have had to sue, repeatedly, to use the psychotropic peyote cactus in centuries-old religious ceremonies. The Council on Spiritual Practices has an entire crispy dry Web site dedicated to “entheogens,” or psychoactive religious substances. Entheogens helped people tune in, not tune out. I guess way back if you were tuned out on the permanent, you’d be eaten by an animal, killed by a rival, or starve to death. But I’ve seen some of the same shadows walking my streets for years.

Now most drug use is about escape rather than engagement. America, the key consumer of drugs, blames the suppliers. According to The Ecologist (UK), the United States is considering carpet-bombing coca-producing Columbian regions with a killer fungus, Fusarium oxysporum. It kills coca, the base of cocaine, but can also cause an infection in humans that is fatal in 70 percent of cases. We plan to drop it on small family farms, far from our streets, whether or not they’re growing goods we detest but pay for. And what are we doing here, about our addictions? The federal government won’t increase funds for rehabilitation. Politicians are addicted to alcohol and tobacco money. An investigation by Common Cause reveals the concessions the alcohol industry’s $23 million in campaign contributions and PAC money from 1989 to 1999 bought.

We can’t fight this by going outside. The only way we can balance the need for transcendence with the drive for survival is by going inside. We must push ourselves to be centered and strong; question what we seek from substances promising transcendence; and figure out what we’re willing to offer in return. In this environment, that could include our freedom or our very lives.

What are our alternatives? Marijuana, judging by the furious debates between states and the federal government, will be sensibly legalized at least on the local level. But it’s scary to envision a world where hard drugs are legalized and rehab continues to be underfunded and stigmatized. In America legalization, taken to a capitalist end-stage, is linked to marketing, sexism, and big corporate profits. What if we had "Pot Girls" and "Ecstasy Girls" just like "Bud Girls"?

The fear of that scenario is just one factor keeping us from moving forward. Talking to a suburban family with small kids, I described drug experimentation as a rite of passage for most people in their teens and 20s. They cocked their heads, remembering some long-ago bong hit, and said, “Ooh, we don’t want to think about that.”

We sure don’t. And as long as we don’t, we won’t be able to discuss what our options are. Decriminalization of drugs, a policy which most European countries follow tacitly or explicitly, means that people can buy certain substances without fear of being arrested and without money going to the government treasury. In America, decriminalization has stalled in part because we can’t imagine something being legal (or not-illegal) and also not taxable. We can’t imagine substances being taxable but having money really go to prevention and rehab. We can’t imagine acknowledging the need most people have to leave their skins for a minute, or building a world where more people have less reason to escape.

Organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance and Alternet’s Drug Reporter newsletter are trying to kickstart policy debate. Let’s start talking. Let’s start dreaming. Now.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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