December 1967, with the bleak gray harshness of a Michigan winter just beginning to bite. I was hanging out at with Jay, a genial but plodding fellow just back from a Thanksgiving visit with his folks in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
“I’m sick of this hippie crap,” Jay declared. To me, still in thrall to peace and love beads, this was akin to hearing a fellow fundamentalist announce a suddenly discovered fondness for the Dark Lord.
“What do you mean?” I asked nervously. Having only recently, by means of marijuana, LSD, and secret messages embedded between the grooves of Beatles records, discovered the Meaning Of Life, I was in no mood to have my certitude disturbed by dissonant or dissident thoughts.
“It’s all phony and disgusting,” said Jay. “Flowers and fairy tales. Grown men and women dancing around in la-di-la costumes trying to pretend they don’t look like pathetic clowns. The hell with it. I’m moving back to New York. That’s where it’s really happening.”
I wasn’t that familiar with New York, but I’d spent enough time there in those pre-gentrification days to know it was no welcoming haven for the gentle souls that we aspired to be, indeed, imagined we already were. Anyway, hippies went to San Francisco, not New York. Everybody knew that.
“But what would you do there?” I asked. Instead of answering, Jay put on a record I’d never seen or heard before. “Listen,” he told me, “this is what New York is about.”
It was The Velvet Underground & Nico; he set the needle down at the beginning of “Heroin.” Jay had memorized the words, and shouted out the parts about feeling like Jesus’ son and trying to nullify his life, then let his eyes roll back into his head as the music dissolved into chaotic squeaks and squawks. I was appalled; Jay was inspired. Heroin, he insisted, was the new drug, the drug that left our silly hippie drugs in the shade, the only drug that mattered to “real” bohemians and adventurers and artists. It was too hard to find in Michigan, so he was headed back to New York, where “everybody” was doing it. A year later he was dead.
He was the first of our gang to die from an overdose, but far, far from the last. Granted, his death was particularly picturesque and squalid because of the way his friends dumped his still-warm body at a turnpike rest stop so they wouldn’t be late for a rock festival, but while we marveled at both the event itself – in our late teens and early 20s, we were still at that stage of life where invulnerability if not immortality is a given – and the tawdry circumstances surrounding it, we reacted in disparate ways. It could be said, in fact, that this was when the gang itself began to die: while some tried to turn Jay into a fallen hero, even erecting a photo-collage shrine to his memory, others – like myself – distanced themselves from his death, trying to maintain the polite fiction that this was the sort of thing that happened to someone else, not people like us.
The thing was, I’d been there when Jay started pursuing his heroin dream in earnest. Despite my earlier disdain for New York, circumstances – in the form of the police – required me to get out of town in a hurry, and hitching a ride east with him in early February of 1968 turned out to be my best option. The night we got there, I traveled into Manhattan with him and his friends, having been promised we were going to get “high.” I presumed this meant marijuana or LSD; instead a harrowing two-hour wait in a Harlem alleyway dissolved into a dimly lit apartment in the Village where Jay and his buddies took turns injecting each other.
They offered to shoot me up as well, but something happened as I watched the plunger go down on the needle piercing Jay’s vein, something with a whiff of the paranormal about it. As the drug hit his bloodstream, I was rocked back on my heels by the exact sensations I’d been told an actual heroin user could expect: the dizziness, the nausea, the sense of the world and all its cares falling away. It was terrifying, and for the first time in my life up to that point, I not only turned down an offer of free drugs, but also resolved never, ever to get involved with heroin.
I would get quite a bit of razzing about this over the years. What’s the difference, people would say: you’ve done everything else, right down to cough medicine and glue. Why draw the line at what so many people swear is the greatest drug of all? Meanwhile, people kept dying, until the numbers were in the double digits and I’d all but stopped counting.
Perhaps the low point was 1971, during what I came to call Junkie Summer. I spent part of it in Berkeley and part in Ann Arbor; in both places a drug-suffused pall seemed to hang over the town, with friends and acquaintances dropping like flies. I realize now that it reflected the circles I chose to move in, that most people got through that year and many others without a single of their friends overdosing, but in my world, heroin was exacting a fearsome toll.
But it wasn’t just heroin, as would become clear over time. People dropped dead from blood vessels that burst while sniffing cocaine, from choking on vomit produced by a lethal combination of barbiturates and alcohol, from being on the wrong end of a knife or gun when a marijuana or LSD deal went horribly wrong. Yes, heroin was the most lethal – of the 50 or 60 people I’ve known to die from drug-related causes, at least 40 or 45 were plain old-fashioned ODs – but even as I write these words, I realize that I’ve drastically underestimated the number of deaths, having forgotten to factor in the HIV and Hep C cases spread by dirty needles, the suicidal depressions exacerbated by long-term alcohol or marijuana use, the traffic accidents and failed internal organs.
This flies in the face of established hippie doctrine – established, in my recollection, by the beginning of the 1970s – which holds that drugs can be separated into two categories, “soft” (or “recreational” or “life-affirming”) and “hard” (“honky death drugs,” as White Panther Party rhetoric had it). This cosmology seemed an essential response to doctors and lawmen who stridently denounced marijuana as a “gateway” to a life of addiction and degradation.
Now that tens of millions of people have used marijuana without so much as ever seeing, let alone trying heroin, that variety of reefer madness seems both ludicrous and antiquated, but some of the harm it did continues to unfold. Drug educators bemoan – correctly so – the practice of telling children that if they try one drug, they’ll be wide open to all of them; young people, discovering that their first experiments produce benign results, leap to the conclusion that the authorities are lying about all drugs.
What’s not so popular – especially among the legions of “medical marijuana” and “sacred herb” proponents – is the uncomfortable truth that for a small but significant minority, their drug of choice does become a gateway to more serious abuse. I was one such person; so were many of my friends. Although I was lucky enough to avoid heroin, there’s no denying that my marijuana use brought me into contact with other drugs and their dealers. It also clouded my judgment in an insidious way, persuading me that because I was operating on a plane of enlightenment not accessible to non-marijuana users, I was virtually incapable of making wrong or dangerous decisions about drugs in general.
The decriminalization of marijuana, provided it’s done right and not along the lines of the increasingly violent Wild West-style free-for-all that has overtaken the “medical” producers of the Emerald Triangle counties, could eliminate the former concern by removing cannabis distribution from underworld channels. But no laws or regulations can address the muddled thinking and sapped initiative produced by chronic marijuana use, any more than the end of Prohibition, while it put an end to the gangland violence of the roaring 20s, was able to help the many Americans engaged in drinking themselves to death.
Neither alcohol nor marijuana are going away, not only because many people enjoy their effects, but also because there is big – massive, really – money involved. When I lived in the Emerald Triangle, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the entire local economy and culture could not have existed without the completely illegal, multi-billion dollar cannabis industry. Now that the trade is quasi-legal and even local law enforcement and the judicial system rest uneasily in the back pocket of Marijuana, Inc., it’s even truer; the panic that swept through the hills last autumn when it looked as though California might finally vote to do away with marijuana laws made it obvious that people are barely capable of imagining a future that doesn’t involve supplying America and the world with one of its most popular drugs.
Does morality enter into this? Or, for that matter, should it? Throughout human history people have sought to alter their internal chemistry, some so assiduously that they died trying. Neither prohibition nor permissiveness has ever seemed capable of putting a dent in that reality.
What to do, then? Nothing? Accept it and move on? Honestly, if I thought that legalizing all drugs would put an end to the violence and crime that often surrounds them, I’d sign that petition instantly, even if it meant an increase in the number of deaths and ruined lives among users. Drugs, as the old saying cruelly puts it, are God’s way of weeding out the assholes, and if they could simply die in anonymity, without impacting on the lives of others, it would be a price worth paying for the increased safety and security it would provide for the rest of society.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way: for every dead junkie or zombified pillhead or catatonic pot smoker, there are family members and friends who suffer the fallout, who have to clean up the corpses and go through the rest of their lives wondering what if anything they could or should have done differently. The answer, all too often, is nothing, nothing at all. Some people will use drugs occasionally, sparingly, and will come through the experience with few if any visible aftereffects. Others will die, sometimes quickly and mercifully, sometimes painfully and slowly, with great attendant misery to all in their vicinity.
That’s the way it’s always been, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Ever since people started dying on me, I’ve made a practice of physically and emotionally distancing myself from friends and loved ones once they start sinking too deeply and irrevocably into drug use. Not because I don’t care about them, not because of some sniffy moral judgment, but because I know, from painful experience, the likely outcome. The fact that I came back more or less intact from my own drug hell lets me know it can be done; the dozens of friends no longer among us provide mute but eloquent testimony of what happens to those who aren’t so fortunate.