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The pleasure is the problem.
A cocaine high is an intensely vivid, sensation-enhancing experience though there is no evidence, as is often claimed, that it is aphrodisiacal. For many users, it goes beyond the Freudian euphoria. Says a Manhattan ballerina: "It makes you shiver in tune with the raw, volcanic energy of New York. It bleeds your sense till you see the city as an epileptic rainbow, trembling at the speed of light." Test programs at UCLA have shown that lab monkeys will forgo both food and sex in favor of an injection of a cocaine solution.
But even casual sniffing can lead to more potent and potentially damaging ways of using cocaine and other drugs. Many cokeheads take sedative pills like methaqualone, brand-named Quaaludes (tons of which are illegally imported from Colombia) to calm down after their high and take the edge off their yearning for more coke.
A few smoke marijuana for the same purpose, or mix their C with heroin in a process called "speedballing" or "boy-girl." This produces a tug-of-war in which the exhilaration of coke is undercut by the heroin. As one former user describes the sensation, "It's like taking an elevator at 100 m.p.h. to the top of the Empire State Building and then someone cuts the cable." A few middle class users who dabble with heroin in conjunction with cocaine smoke it rather than inject it in their veins like the ghetto kid. This, they believe, prevents addiction. Not so. Heroin, however used, is a fiercely addictive drug, and treatment centers are receiving an influx of well-dressed, well-to-do men and women who have sorely underestimated it. In Manhattan alone, dozens of such people can be seen early each morning standing in line at the clinic of Greenwich House West, where they are administered methadone in an attempt to wean them from heroin.
But cocaine, all by itself, can be nightmare enough for many. "Of all the drugs I've ever done, the weirdest, because of its effects upon you, is cocaine," says a musician in Key West, Fla., who has also had experience with heroin and other drugs. "Cocaine is so subtle in the way it takes over your personality. I went through a year when I did more coke than most people will ever do in a lifetime. I went from weighing 188 lb. to 150 lb. The first time I did it, I was into heroin, so I cooked it up and shot it into a vein. A few minutes later my whole body was going cold. It felt like I was going to faint or was getting seasick. The whole world was going gray, everybody in the room getting real distant. I was going limp and lifeless, and the only thing I could think about was to concentrate on my breathing."
After that he switched to sniffing regularly. "I wasn't as aware of my personality changes as the people around me," he recalls. "Your life seems to be getting faster paced. After I'd done it for a while, I'd look at everybody funny. You get to where you don't trust the people you're around. You go to a pay phone in the middle of a city you've never been to before in your life and you think it's bugged really and seriously."
Finally friends and his wife helped him to see how distorted his life had become. "Two or three sat down with me and said, 'Look, we just can't handle being around you any more, so would you mind just not coming by?' "
Since sniffing cocaine produces such a quick, short boost, more and more users have sought the deeper ecstatic "rush" that comes from "freebasing," smoking a chemically treated form of the powder. The large, concentrated doses used in freebasing require even more money than the straight powder, which is one reason why the practice has been more prevalent among highly paid celebrities such as Comedian Richard Pryor and former Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.
But anybody with a ready stash of cash can become ensnared in freebasing, as is shown by the experience of Mary (not her real name), 25, the owner of a dog kennel in Sonoma County, Calif. Mary was appalled when her brother, manager of an auto-parts store, sold his car, quit his job and began obsessively freebasing. Despite her concern, she tried it too and soon became just as hooked.
Says she: "I sort of abandoned my life in every way." She and her brother had an inheritance from a wealthy grandmother, of which Mary's share was $120,000. After a year of five-or six-day binges followed by several days of sleep and then more binges, Mary had run through most of the inheritance, lost 20 lb. and, in her rundown condition, developed back pains and a spastic colon.