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The most conservative researchers estimate that 10 million Americans now use coke with some regularity, and another 5 million have probably experimented with it. (Other estimates double that figure.) According to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 20% of young adults (18 to 25 years old) used cocaine in 1979, twice the number reported in NIDA'S 1977 survey. Another study, by a team of Harvard Medical School researchers, has traced an "astonishing" increase in cocaine use by college students. A 1979 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration has the ring of prophecy: "If present trends go unchecked, a vast new youth market for the substance [cocaine] could be opened. High cost, rather than restricted availability, will remain the principal deterrent to regular use among less affluent persons."
And it is all-pervasive. Says Peter Bensinger, outgoing administrator of the DEA: "We see coke sales in suburbs, in recreational centers and in national parks. It is an unrecognized tornado." Nor does this overstate the case. A special investigative team of TIME correspondents found that in Vienna, Ga., or Venice, Calif., a gram of coke was about as hard to find as a six-pack of Bud. Whether in a suburban high school outside Los Angeles, on Wall Street or Madison Avenue or in the interstices of ostensibly "straight" Middle America, $100 will rapidly summon up a gram of what goes for cocaine.
At a restaurant north of Boston, cooks celebrate the last day of their work week as Coke Day, sniffing the white stuff from their first order to their last, often joined by dishwashers, busboys and waitresses, who come by for an occasional hit. A more impatient group in Pasadena, Calif. a cross section of professionals in their 20s and 30s celebrates TGIW (Thank God It's Wednesday), gathering at the home of a local car dealer for a coke session at cocktail time.
Coke is found on the job as well as off. A busy Los Angeles lawyer says he uses "a lot" of it "because it helps drive me through a night's work, through a lot of grinding case preparation." Says a counselor at an upper-crust prep school in Massachusetts: "I'd say 10% to 15% of the kids here use cocaine with some regularity." A sun-bleached woman student at the University of Colorado's Boulder campus confesses: "I took all my finals coked out last semester, and I heard a lot of sniffing in the exam room."
A woman who worked as a maid at condominiums in Aspen, Colo., says, "The people used to leave a little cocaine on the table as a tip." Aspen, in fact, is known in faster circles as Toot City because it is so pervaded by coke. In another Colorado mountain resort, Telluride, six prominent citizens, including a former councilwoman, were charged last month with trafficking in cocaine. Says Mark Pautler, director of the police task force that made the arrests: "We have a strong feeling that a lot of people in Telluride knew what was going on but were looking the other way. Coke appears to have been a very acceptable form of recreation."
In a volatile "pass-along" market, almost anybody who buys coke can also be a dealer, "cutting" or adulterating his supply and then selling a portion at a tidy profit. A number of young professional people add $10,000 to $20,000 to their annual incomes tax free by dealing coke. Steve, a young California lawyer who sold marijuana to put himself through law school, now has a small, discreet cocaine business. Says he: "I started selling some to close friends because I couldn't afford to buy it for my wife and myself. We found a way to beat inflation." In fact most traffickers like Steve are engaged in a game that resembles the chain letter or pyramid schemes.
In some circles coke is a barter item, readily accepted for dental work, as an accountant's fee or in exchange for a discount on a new car. "I have one friend who got stuck with staggering alimony payments," says Jim Groth, a Southern California newspaper editor. "He started dealing a little, and now he is paying off his wife in toot, and everybody is happy."
Many large-scale dealers have women who are known by them as "coke whores." Like rock groupies, they hang around in the expectation of a heart-thumping jolt. Says a juvenile court judge in California: "To the kids here, cocaine means as much in terms of social approval as a car did when we were kids. If a boy produces some coke on a date, it is just expected that the girl is going to put out."