Cocaine: Middle Class High

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The "all-American drug" has hit like a blizzard, with casualties rising.

C17H21NO4. A derivative of Erythroxylon coca. Otherwise known as cocaine, coke, C, snow, blow, toot, leaf, flake, freeze, happy dust, nose candy, Peruvian, lady, white girl. A vegetable alkaloid derived from leaves of the coca plant. Origin: eastern slopes of the Andes mountains. Availability: Anywhere, U.S.A. Cost: $2,200 per oz., five times the price of gold.

Whatever the price, by whatever name, cocaine is becoming the all-American drug. No longer is it a sinful secret of the moneyed elite, nor merely an elusive glitter of decadence in raffish society circles, as it seemed in decades past. No longer is it primarily an exotic and ballyhooed indulgence of high-gloss entrepreneurs, Hollywood types and high rollers, as it was only three or four years ago — the most conspicuous of consumptions, to be sniffed from the most chic of coffee tables through crisp, rolled-up $100 bills. Today, in part precisely because it is such an emblem of wealth and status, coke is the drug of choice for perhaps millions of solid, conventional and often upwardly mobile citizens — lawyers, businessmen, students, government bureaucrats, politicians, policemen, secretaries, bankers, mechanics, real estate brokers, waitresses. Largely unchecked by law enforcement, a veritable blizzard of the white powder is blowing through the American middle class, and it is causing significant social and economic shifts no less than a disturbing drug problem.

Superficially, coke is a supremely beguiling and relatively risk-free drug — at least so its devotees innocently claim. A snort in each nostril and you're up and away for 30 minutes or so. Alert, witty and with it. No hangover. No physical addiction. No lung cancer. No holes in the arms or burned-out cells in the brain. Instead, drive, sparkle, energy. If it were not classified (incorrectly) by the federal government as a narcotic, and if it were legally distributed throughout the U.S. (as it was until 1906), cocaine might be the biggest advertiser on television. You can hear the commercials: Endorsed by the great Dr. Sigmund Freud. The inspiration of poets, artists, inventors! You too can be inspired, thanks to a stimulant revered as sacred eight centuries ago by the great Inca civilization. Start each day right with Snowghurt or Flake Flakes. A little Leaf instead of lettuce for lunch. Toot Sweet, come the Happy Hour. [Band music swells in crescendo.] Mayke it bet-tah with Coke!*

But coke is no joke. Although in very small and occasional doses it is no more harmful than equally moderate doses of alcohol or marijuana, and infinitely less so than heroin, it has its dark and destructive side. The euphoric lift, the feeling of being confident and on top of things that comes from a few brief snorts, is often followed by a letdown; regular use can induce depression, edginess and weight loss. As usage increases, so does the danger of paranoia, hallucinations and a totally "strung out" physical collapse, not to mention a devastation of the nasal membrane. And usage does tend to increase. Says one initiate: "After one hit of cocaine I feel like a new man. The only problem is, the first thing the new man wants is another hit."

This pattern can lead to a psychological dependence whose effects are not all that different from addiction. Moreover, there is growing clinical evidence that when coke is taken in the most potent and dangerous forms — injected in solution, or chemically converted and smoked in the process called freebasing — it may indeed become addictive.

Of all drugs in the U.S., cocaine is now the biggest producer of illicit in come. Some 40 metric tons of it will be shipped into the country this year. As coke experts like to point out, if all the international dealers who supply the drug to the U.S. market — not even including the retailers — were to form a single corporation, it would probably rank seventh on the Fortune 500 list, between Ford Motor Co. ($37 billion in revenue) and Gulf Oil Corp. ($26.5 billion). Last year street sales of cocaine, by far the most expensive drug on the market, reached an estimated $30 billion in the U.S. (Sales of marijuana, the runner-up and still the most widely used illicit drug, amounted to some $24 billion.)

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