Cocaine: Middle Class High

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The drug trade has flooded the southern Florida criminal justice system with more offenders than it can handle. "Some officers are coming to the point of being totally frustrated with the court system," says Lieut. Lamont. "Even for large amounts of cocaine, we're seeing a revolving-door kind of system where there's no fine, no sentence, no slap on the wrist." Lamont and other honest policemen are aware that some fellow officers, not to mention high-standing community members, may be making big money from cocaine. The scenario of a defense attorney being paid off in cocaine and a judge being a dealer? Lamont nods. "The corruptibility factor is there. The money is there to be made."

Smuggling, murder, corruption, vast sums of money — all are deeply corrosive byproducts of the cocaining of America. So too are the physical shocks, the attrition of nerves, of health, of whole years of potentially productive life. Part of the underground economy of cocaine must be calculated in vast negative numbers: labor undone, careers sidetracked, money diverted from worthy projects.

But what of the purely social impact, especially among those millions of good people who would never remotely think of themselves as criminals, even though they are regularly flouting the law and sending out signals to other segments of society that it is all right to do so? They would never consider themselves addicts either, even though they devoutly believe in getting high for a little extra edge, for relief, for fun. What does their persistent and growing use of coke say about them?

Americans inhabit a society in which they are conditioned from infancy to believe there is a pill for every ill: what one expert calls "jet-age pharmacology." By contrast, Winston Churchill is credited with the observation that "most of the world's work is done by people who do not feel very well." In the U.S. particularly, says psychiatrist Mitchell Rosenthal, "people believe that you don't have to feel uncomfortable if you have the right doctor, the right drug connection, the right pusher. We have lost touch with the fundamental notion that people can operate not always feeling terribly well. Taking cocaine is not the answer. In the end it leaves you psychologically bankrupt."

Quite apart from the Dr. Feelgood syndrome, some observers point to the intense competitiveness of American life as a major motivation for drug use. Says English-born Author Christopher Isherwood (Berlin Stories), who lives in Santa Monica, Calif.: "Americans are awfully rattled about their jobs. Can they deliver properly, can they do it? Life is a nasty, rough game, always was. Some people can't face it without some sort of backup." Rajendra Misra, Indian-born executive director of a community health center in East Cleveland, Ohio, maintains: "Right from childhood in this country there is pressure for accomplishment. Every time we do something, we are made aware of the fact that either we are achieving or we are failing. There's nothing in between."

Part of the allure of cocaine is the popular, but inaccurate, notion that it can make a male a keener achiever in bed. Says Lawrence Ross, director of a Marin County treatment center: "There is a tremendous premium on sexual performance for men. It is the one thing that people think they have to be good at." In fact, after sustained use cocaine can cause sexual dysfunction and impotence.

More profoundly, some observers of the American scene see an existential vacuum, a widespread sense that life has lost much of its meaning. Argues philosopher Sidney Hook: "We have abandoned our old-fashioned values. We have given up our old gods. People want things to come easily, they no longer want to work hard, to suffer any pain, to feel any stress or anxiety." Since the turbulence of the 1960s, more and more Americans have come to feel that they have lost control over their lives. Finding Mom, God and apple pie less fulfilling, many have increasingly taken refuge in drugs, sex and disillusion.

"In a society that says drug taking is O.K.," suggests Rosenthal, "cocaine gives the user the illusion of being more in control. People feel stronger, smarter, faster, more able to cope with things. It's more than the pleasure principle." What these people tend to overlook, points out Charles Schuster, director of the Drug Abuse Research Center at the University of Chicago, is the tremendous psychological risk: "One of cocaine's biggest dangers is that it diverts people from normal pursuits; it can entrap and redirect people's activities into an almost exclusive preoccupation with the drug."

On the other hand, that may be what attracts some to it. As Christopher Lasch wrote in his 1978 book The Culture of Narcissism: "To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future. It is the waning of the sense of historical time — in particular the erosion of any strong concern for posterity — that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the '70s." This seems most distressingly true of the students and other young people among whom cocaine is spreading so rapidly — despite the fact that they are the ones who have the greatest need to believe in a future and to trust in a posterity.

There is little likelihood that the cocaine blizzard will soon abate. A drug habit born of a desire to escape the bad news in life is not likely to be discouraged by the bad news about the drug itself. And so middle class Americans continue to succumb to the powder's crystalline dazzle. Few are yet aware or willing to concede that at the very least, taking cocaine is dangerous to their psy chological health. It may be no easy task to reconvince them that good times are made, not sniffed.

With reporting by Jonathan Beaty, Steven Holmes and Jeff Melvoin, with U.S. bureaus

* Coca-Cola did in fact contain cocaine until 1906, when the company had to drop the drug from its secret formula.

* Cole Porter's song from Anything Goes (1934) had the line "I get no kick from cocaine." It was sometimes amended to "Some like the perfumes of Spain."

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