Jun 132003

My blogging holiday was lovely, thanks for asking. I spent a good portion of it trying to figure out how to use a remote Oracle database in a Microsoft .NET application, no easy trick because Microsoft’s support for Oracle is largely theoretical. They don’t really want you to use Oracle at all when you can use SQL Server, their wretched excuse for a production database, instead. Which is all neither here nor there. And now, drugs, which I assure you I was thinking about even before embarking on this excellent adventure.

Full Disclosure: I have a good bit of personal, if not professional, experience with drug use. Several of my friends were heavy users of alcohol, crack, and heroin at various times. I have myself indulged in — “experimented with,” if I were running for office — all of the major food groups at least a couple times. (Q: Mr. Haspel, how many times have you experimented with marijuana? A: Several thousand times, sir. Science requires replicable results.)

Theodore Dalrymple points out, by way of prologue, that heroin withdrawal isn’t all it’s, er, cracked up to be:

I cant tell you how many people Ive withdrawn from heroin. You never get any problems with it. Its not like withdrawal from serious drinking which can be, and often is, a medical emergency. From a medical point of view, Im much more worried in the prison when someone tells me hes an alcoholic. Im much more worried about the physical consequences of his withdrawal because they are really serious, and he can die from them. But nobody ever dies from heroin withdrawal. With the vast majority of them, you just take them aside and say: “Im not prescribing anything for you, I will prescribe symptomatic relief if I see you have symptoms, but what you tell me has nothing to do with it, Im not going to be moved by any of your screaming.” One chap came in and said “What are you prescribing me?” and I said “Nothing”, and he screamed at me, “Youre a butcher! Youre a f***ing butcher”, and he screamed and shouted and eventually I said “Take him away.”

In their more honest moments my drug-using friends have all acknowledged that Dalrymple is right: quitting, alcohol excepted, just isn’t all that tough. Most junkies have quit and returned several times when physical dependence was no longer an issue. I’ve quit smoking twice myself, suffering nothing more than low-level irritability probably indiscernible from my usual demeanor. The inner emptiness where nicotine once was never quite disappears, but whether that is physical or psychological who can say? So to me Jacob Sullum’s tale of the 44-year-old big-shot ad executive/weekend smack dabbler sounds utterly plausible.

Then why do so many people let drugs consume their lives, if it isn’t to avoid a couple days of the flu? Boredom, mostly. Human beings are goal-directed to such a degree that they will substitute a destructive goal if nothing constructive presents itself. Drugs fit the bill admirably. You think you need more, you want more, you have nothing better to do, and you go out and get more. Now you have a goal. Now your life has meaning.

This pseudo-meaning is enhanced by ceremony and ritual, a vastly underrated aspect of drug culture. Paraphernalia assume a mystical significance. Many cigarette smokers worship at the Shrine of Zippo. Some potheads of my acquaintance used to insist on using a particular double album, usually by Genesis, to clean weed. Cokeheads like to snort through $100 bills. Heroin users have the spoon, the tie, and the needle; crack users the pipe and the Chore-Boy (you trap the fumes and get a second hit by lighting it — less powerful, but included in the price). Psychedelics failed to achieve the popularity they deserved in large part because they have no paraphernalia; in cultures that supply a substitute, like peyote-based religious rituals, they are popular.

All-consuming drug use travesties purposeful behavior, the way the Mafia travesties legitimate business. And drug users testify, strangely, to the Misesian proposition that man is a being who acts toward ends.

Post scripta: Drug names are an excellent illustration of Hayek’s thesis about the collective wisdom of the marketplace that may not have occurred to Hayek himself. The market produces crack, smack, crank, ice, pot, blow, and X; committees produce — you can choose your own, but some of my recent favorites are Intuition (a razor for women), Deja Blue (bottled water), and Teen Spirit (a deodorant, God help us).

(Update: Eve Tushnet comments very nicely, but says I lack permalinks. It’s that little chain icon on the right. This from a Blogspot blogger, no less; ah, the irony.)

  14 Responses to “Smack, Crack, Pot”

  1. Many cigarette smokers worship at the Shrine of Zippo.

    Insignificant example. It’s us pipe smokers for whom life without Zippo is simply unimaginable.


  2. All of this reminds me … I need a drink.

  3. Aaron,

    I’m fascinated by this suggestion that a lack of kit & ritual is responsible for the relative unpopularity of psychedelics. It is so resonant I wish I could believe it, but I can’t.

    I think it’s simpler. Psychedelics are _interesting_ drugs, but most people don’t go around urgently desiring to be interested in things. But stimulants and depressants serve appetites more basic than curiosity, the drives for power or for relaxation (a crude summary, but you get the idea).

    As for addiction, I find it easiest to understand when I think of how some people fail to control their weight. Eating less and exercising isn’t so hard on its own terms. But it clearly becomes impossible to some people, probably because it becomes a struggle against all the unruly power of habit and neurosis.

    I think most people are less self-controlled than they think, but are lucky enough never to have occasion to notice it.

  4. Alexis, you’ve caught me in the (Mickey) Kausian fallacy of generalizing shamelessly from my own experience — assuming psychedelics should be more popular because I liked them.

    However, I’m not sure your elemental-drives thesis suffices either. How then would you explain the popularity of marijuana, which dwarfs that of smack and coke combined?

  5. Since I am sitting on a grand jury in Hudson County NJ listening to numerous drug dealing cases, I have become an expert in the BUSINESS of drug dealing. As I cannot write of specifics, I will speak in generalities:

    1) Drug wholesalers have much smaller markups than street dealers. In fact, MARGINS ARE SIMILAR TO RETAIL GOODS WHOLESALERS. In short, move weight and you receive no benefit of enhanced margin for increased risk.

    2) Quality of goods are strictly reviewed and enforced. Hydro and Purple Haze are dramatically more costly than Skunk or Dirt. The ratio of cost is similar to that between a men’s suit bought at Saks and one bought at Men’s Warehouse.

    3) Dealers actually put logos on their products. This one continues to perplex me.

  6. Aaron:

    As for marijuana, I’d argue its wide appeal is based on the relative mildness of its effects. And I bet a lot of it is consumed at pretty low doses, where those effects are much opiate-like than they are psychedlic.

    But all these categories are pretty blurry, so it’s hard to make a complete theory based on them.

    And LSD, a big hallucinogen, has been quite common as a street drug, so I guess that argues against our original assumption.

    I bet the real histories of drug popularities is driven by the cat & mouse game of enforcement, as the dealers keep switchig to drugs that are easier to produce, transport, distribute, etc.. And presumably drugs are subject to the same fads that have people buying a different soft drink brand every 5 years.


    Are logos that surprising? How else will I distinguish my Purple Haze from my Skunk?

  7. Alexis:

    Logos do not seem to distinguish grade of product. They seem, instead, to advertise street distributor. Advertising the identity of of the provider of contraband is very curious to me.

  8. Aaaaahhh yes, that demon nicotine. I too have quit smoking twenty-and-twice….lol….

    Actually I’ve stopped smoking twice and plan on quitting because you only quit smoking once.

    Alexis; the changes in popularity of drugs? As far as I can see it is due to the state of the economy.

    The opiate effects of pot are popular now because of the cannaboids effectiveness in dealing with severe stress and trauma and depression(the substances in pot act as an anti-depressant by reacting with the brains dopamine receptors)

    Cocaine is on the flip side of the same coin as it stimulates and creates false energy (needed to overcome depression induced lethargy).

    Where is all this stress and trauma coming from?

    Timothy Leary’s dead….no, no, no, no,… he’s outside looking in…… Timothy Leary’s dead!

    Who turned on? Who tuned in? Who dropped out?

  9. …or it could just be that people do drugs because they get them high.

    does anybody wanna buy a bag?

  10. “Then why do so many people let drugs consume their lives… Boredom, mostly. Human beings are goal-directed to such a degree that they will substitute a destructive goal if nothing constructive…” blah blah


    I wonder, have you known true suffering, or that of others?

    Have you ever said to yourself, “Well it’s either I drink this whiskey or put a gun in my mouth.” I have.

    That’s why people get messed up on drugs. There sure are a lot of words on you page but none of them resonate at all with any experience I have ever had. In fact they are OFFENSIVE to those of who dealt with the horrors of use and withdrawl. I like my rituals huh? That’s why I got into this HORROR? Please.

  11. we do drugs because life is a disappointment. it doesnt matter how much we achieve. we will continue to be lonely and isolated.

    i smoke crack and heroin, because it is the only way i can be physically intimate with another human being without feeling physically sick.

    i wasnt sexually abused as a child

    i work ( hard )

    i earn a good wage.

    i have my own place.

    i have a car.

    i have a loving family and both parents in my life

    i have a girlfriend who adores me.

    i have work colleagues and friends, who value me and respect me.

    i am so fucking lonely i sometimes want to die.

    if anyone can tell me why, despite following all the instructions to the letter, – got to school, get a job, get a cute girl, get a place, etc…..i stlll feel like there is a big chunk missing from my soul, then please tell me why?

  12. I’m sorry, but speaking as a former heroin/methadone/every opiate under the fucking sun addict of over 21 years, I cannot stand people with NO actual experience of addiction pontificating about how easy it is to quit using. It is not easy. It is hard…fucking, fucking, hard. A full blown withdrawal from an IV heroin habit is not akin to a couple of days flu, as you glibly state, but a godawful trial by fire of a week or more. You will not sleep a wink, your arse will explode with stinking mucus…you puke, you writhe, you sweat foul out of every pore. Then you have the months of feeling hollow, depressed and as if you have had a layer of skin sandpapered off. It is a horrible, horrible experience, and I have NEVER EVER met a long term addict describe the experience as lightly as you do. It is true that the experience will not kill you, but that does not make it any easier to go through. If you have not been there, you simply cannot know how unpleasant it is. Not a clue. And speaking up for the countless friends who were not as lucky as me to make it out through the other side alive (too many lost to overdose, one murdered etc), I find it damn offensive when people try and play down the very real problems and hurdles faced daily by addicts. I’m sorry, but Dalrymple is an idiot…as blinkered and set in his ways as those he rails against. His recent crusade against methadone prescribing wholly ignores the fact that for a very significant number of people, methadone is literally a life saving medication. This is simply a fact. His fundamental position, as with all zealots on a mission, is to ignore the huge differences between individuals and different cases, all of which should be treated accordingly. What works for some will not work for all. Some, myself included, will sort themselves out eventually with no help from a practitioner whatsoever. Others will die. Harm reduction and tailored support and treatment for those in need is the key. Glib pronouncements proffering the solution to the drug problem a la Dalrymple, however well meaning, are of no practical help whatsoever and only serve to polarise and entrench opinion. At the end of the day, saving lives and recovering them is what is important.

  13. Drug wholesalers have much smaller markups than street dealers.In fact, MARGINS ARE SIMILAR TO RETAIL GOODS WHOLESALERS.In short, move weight and you receive no benefit of enhanced margin for increased risk.

  14. Dalrymple’s “quitting heroin is easy” viewpoint needs to be seen in some context…he is a right wing, self confessed misanthrope who has never been a heroin addict, ie. he hates people & has no experience of heroin withdrawal.

    Very possibly heroin is straightforward enough for some to quit, but clearly not so for others. Of course, Dalrymple is doing what he always does…looking at a small part of a human problem that he feels qualified ( be it convicts, patients or Africans…as they have all passed under his dispassionate microscope ) to explain away in black & white terms & ignoring the rather more complex issue of the people themselves.

    To Dalrymple the misanthrope, the lowly people he writes about are merely ciphers. He is a compassion free zone. It is all aspects of the PERSON using the drug, not simply the drug itself that determines whether a person will conquer it.

    His words are about as wise & useful as saying “just eat less” to an obese person, or “work harder” to a person on a low income.

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