Cocaine: A Flash in the Pan, a Pain in the Nose - Rolling Stone
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Cocaine: A Flash in the Pan, a Pain in the Nose

Use of the drug spreads through music and the culture at large

CocaineCocaine

Young man cocaine addicted

Milos Jokic/Getty

Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones, you better watchyour speed.

—Grateful Dead
“Casey Jones”

Los Angeles — In the pre-rock and roll Fifties, “Coke Time” was what Eddie Fisher called his NBC television show. Today it is a reference not to a soft drink, but a hard drug: cocaine, ordinarily known as a rich man’s high, but fast becoming the “in” drug. Already it is responsible for wasting a number of top musical names and is popular enough to create a new industry: cocaine paraphernalia.

The odd thing about it is: coke can bring the user as far down as up. Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant, but it also can be a severe depressant causing “acute poisoning,” better known as an overdose.

“When this happens,” says a Hollywood doctor now treating dozens of cocaine casualties in the music industry, “the initial symptoms are restlessness, excitability, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, chills or fever, sensory aberrations – the inability to feel heat or cold, abdominal pain, vomiting, numbness and muscle spasms, followed by depressed and irregular respiration, convulsions, coma and circulatory failure. Death may occur almost immediately after the use of cocaine, or may be delayed one to three hours.”

The doctor admits that such poisoning is rare and that it usually follows the absorption of pure cocaine, which is also rare. More common than a coke overdose, he says, is the “chronic poisoning” from habitual use that he sees so regularly in his Sunset Boulevard office.

“Once again there can be hallucinations,” he says, “even though coke is not a psychedelic. There is mental deterioration, weight loss, a change of character. And prolonged sniffing can cause chronic nasal congestion and perforation of the septum – the nasal wall. Cocaine causes the blood vessels to constrict and with insufficient blood reaching the area, the partition between the nostrils atrophies.”

The doctor additionally said that because the drug attacks the mucous membranes, it also invites infection from bacteria and that although it is not physiologically addictive, there is a high potential for psychological addiction, a side-effect that causes coke to be categorized with narcotics despite its definition as a “local anesthetic.”

“And,” says Dan MacLean, a chemist conducting drug research for Los Angeles Country hospitals, “it causes acute paranoia – a bristling with knives and guns, a loss of critical judgment, where in it can become as amusing to smash someone senseless as suck on a lollipop.”

If this weren’t enough, coke is expensive; $10 a snort, $50 a spoon (gram), $500 to $1300 an ounce, local street prices for coke. that may have been “stepped on” (cut) several times. Which is to say a coke habit can cost the user hundreds of dollars a day.

And it is illegal everywhere, with penalties for possession and sale in this country paralleling those regarding heroin.

It should not be confused with heroin, or other opiates, however. The differences are great. “Most users are not addicted in any way,” says the doctor. “They can take it or leave it. The danger is in the abuse. Coke is an easy drug to abuse, because it is rapidly metabolized. There is rapid absorption into the body, but it also leaves the body rapidly, so the user, if he can afford it, does some more coke, and when that detoxifies, he does some more. The next thing you know he’s in my office complaining of congestion, saying nasal sprays don’t help. Sales of these sprays, and drops, have rocketed, by the way, and I directly attribute that increase to the widely extended use of cocaine.”

The doctor reaches for a thick volume titled The Pharmacological Basics of Therapeutics, the recognized authority in pharmacology (the science of drugs), and turns to the section on cocaine.

“Listen to this,” he says. “Nobody’s going to argue with Goodman and Gilman [the authors] and this book was published in 1970, but listen to this and see how fast these things get outdated. This is a quote: ‘Cocaine abuse is uncommon in Western countries.’ You know what I got to say that? Bullshit.”

He drops the book on the desk. “When a musician comes in with nasal congestion, the first think I ask is how much coke is he sniffing. It’s so rampant now. I see coke spoons and roach holders on neck chains every day. Coke spoons, roach holders and nose drops.”

Throughout Los Angeles, and in other cities as well, these items are taking over sizeable sections of paraphernalia displays in head shops. At Them or Us in Hollywood, three-inch glass tubes shaped to fit the nose — they’re called Coke Snorters — are going for 75 cents. A few blocks away in DuGally’s Primitive Elegance (“Creative Manufacturers of the Unusual”) there are tiny brass spoons tucked inside 30 caliber bullets – for $1.95, add a dollar to get the same thing on a neck chain. In suburban Encino at the Third Eye, the plain sterling silver spoons are $5 apiece and those with opals are priced at $18 and $25.

Nor is the trade limited to the psychedelic set. “I know prominent attorneys, businessmen, people from all walks who are on coke,” says the doctor. At Marvin Hime & Company in Beverly Hills, a wholesale jewelers, a 14 karat gold baby spoon is listed at $37.50, another, smaller gold spoon for about half that. (Double or triple the figures to determine retail prices.) A salesman at Hime’s says the smaller spoon is sold as a “charm, or for decorative purposes” and that the larger is a “great gift for baby showers,” but recent sales indicate there is a market broader than that limited to charm bracelets and the birth rate. Note that at several boutiques in Los Angeles, small, antique silver spoons are being priced as high as $100.

Most of the traffic is in the longhaired community and at first, it may seem puzzling: many of those now using coke don’t appear to be a part of the high income group that can afford it. Then it becomes clear that many of them are dealing, as in the marijuana market, just enough to keep themselves in coke.

“Look,” says a smalltime pusher, “I can buy a fairly clean ounce for a thousand bucks, step on it once and double my money, or sell half after I cut it, get my money back and still have half an ounce for myself.”

He pulls a small vial of white powder from the pocket of his faded, embroidered jeans, carefully sprinkles two thin rows of the powder on a magazine, tightly rolls a new $20 bill, places one end next to one row, the other end in his right nostril. He presses his left nostril closed and inhales through his right, vacuuming the powder in a swift movement along the row. SNIFFFFFF. He breathes deeply, then repeats the process with the other row and other nostril. SNIFFFFFFFF.

(Coke also can be shot, dropped, rubbed on the gums, or shoved – as a suppository, although these techniques are rarely used. Even sprinkling it on an open cut will get the user high; coke is that readily absorbed.)

Almost immediately, the pusher’s heartbeat accelerates, his body temperature rises slightly, his pupils dilate, his face flushes a little, his nose numbs. In minutes he will become garrulous, restless, excited. He will feel confident, larger than life.

“Dynamite!” he says, holding the vial aloft. “Wanna little taste? The first snort’s on me.”

The odd thing about the cocaine market is the money. The high street price hints that it is an expensive drug to produce. This is not true. The wholesale price of pure cocaine set by Mallinckrodt Chemicals in St. Louis, primary source in this country, is only $20 an ounce. (By law, manufacturers can sell only to licensed pharmacists, who in turn sell coke mostly to eye, ear, nose and throat specialists, who use it as an anesthetic in surgery.) What this means is that when coke is trafficked illegally, its cost increases by as much as 5000 percent, or more. Only outside the US, in South America where the coca plant grows and in the Far East where American soldiers are snorting in massive numbers, is the cost of sniffing reasonable.

It is no mystery why coke is currently the musician’s favorite high. One heavy user, who is essentially a withdrawn personality, tells friends that coke gives him the confidence he needs to perform at his best. John Kay of Steppenwolf, a band that has an anti-coke song on the record charts, “Snowblind Friend,” recognizes the drug’s appealing qualities and calls it a “temporary cure-all.” The Hollywood doctor goes so far as to say that “there is some evidence that it increases one’s ability to create, as well as increases physical strength.” It was for these last reasons that Sherlock Holmes used cocaine – against Doctor Watson’s advice.

However enamored much of the rock community may be of coke, many of the songs, past and present, put it down as a bummer. Steppenwolf’s hit, written by Hoyt Axton about a mutual friend of his and John Kay’s, is just one of many examples:

He said he wanted Heaven
But prayin’ was too slow
So he bought a one-way ticket
On an airline made of snow
Did you say you saw your good friend flyin’ low?

Cocaine began appearing frequently in popular music more than 40 years ago, where there were several songs called “Cocaine Blues.” One that was recorded by R&B as well as C&W singers in the late Twenties had as its key line “I’m simply wild about my good cocaine,” but also contained a warning:

Coke’s good for horses
Not for women or men
The doctor said it’d kill you
But he didn’t say when

Another song with the same title told the story of a man who shoots his woman down (while high on coke) and closed with a more direct admonition: “Lay off that liquor and let that cocaine be.”

Then in 1930, the Memphis Jug Band recorded “Cocaine Habit Blues.” The first two lines told the tale: “Cocaine habit’s mighty bad/It’s the worst ol’ habit that I ever had.”

Not all songwriters agree, of course. In 1927, Victoria Spivey’s “Dope Head Blues” openly praised the drug:

Just give me one more sniffie
Another sniffie of that dope
I’ll catch a cow like a cowboy
Throw a bull without a rope

While Champion Jack Dupree, one of the great New Orleans blues pianists — and heroin addict — recorded two versions of “Junker’s Blues,” in the first saying his sister used coke, in the second admitting the truth:

Some people say I use the needle
And some say I sniff cocaine
But that’s the best ol’ feeling
In the world that I’ve ever seen

And Cole Porter, who was known to try anything at least once, wrote in his appropriately titled Broadway show Anything Goes:

I get no kick from cocaine
I’m sure that if I took even one sniff
It would bore me terrifically too
But I get a kick out of you.

More recently, coke came under lyric attack again, as Fred Neil, Hoyt Axton and Dave Van Ronk all contributed to a song best identified by the line “Cocaine … running around my heart and my brain.” From Neil’s version:

I said, “Come here, mama
Come here quick
Cocaine makin’ your poor boy so sick”
Ah, bitter sweet

In recent months this song has been recorded by several others, including the Brass Bed Blues Band, whose version is now being played regularly on Los Angeles FM radio stations. While the Grateful Dead song about “living on reds, vitamin C and cocaine” in “Truckin’,” a song from their most recent album. And suddenly the single word “Cocaine!” appeared between the third and fourth verses of Lennon’s “Hold On John.” And Paul Kantner opened “Hi Jack” with a smile: “The summer was dry like your nose when you’ve been behind coke for a day and a season.”

Cocaine has appeared in fewer films, most memorably in Easy Rider, when Phil Spector made a buy from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – and then Spector used a photograph of that scene as his Christmas card, with the message: “A Little ‘Snow’ At Christmas Time Never Hurt Anyone! !” In New York, a column in the East Village Other written by Dennis Frawley and Bob Rudnick was translated into a radio program at a college station in East Orange, New Jersey, and then moved to New York’s hip, listener-sponsored station, WBAI FM. Here in L.A., there was a story going around that a group of known coke-heads were forming a band to be called Frosty and His Snowmen. And Wavy Gravy began talking publicly (on radio, in the Realist about how he likes to think of cocaine as “the thinking man’s Dristan.”

It was all this endorsement and publicity that helped make the drug so popular. It had ceased to be an elitist drug, the odd habit of rich eccentricity. It had ceased to be a racist drug, the nasty habit of blacks. As soon as the money of rock and roll appeared on the coke market, it became the high of Stars. And the fans followed. They were looking for a new Up anyway, now that speed was no longer “hip.”

Coke also is being used in sex to delay climax. “Rub it on the head of your cock and you can fuck forever,” says one user. It should be added that because coke numbs all membranes, all sensation disappears when this is done and therefore the prolonged sex act is little more than an ego trip for the male.

Of course much of the coke being sold today is not cocaine at all, but a mix of procaine and methedrine—procaine being one of several chemical combinations that are more anesthetic than stimulant: thus, the blend with speed. And when it is coke, because the drug passes through so many hands on the way to the consumer, it is cut repeatedly, until, according to chemist Dan McLean, only six to 30 percent of the snort is coke. The rest is lactose (milk sugar), a baby laxative called Minute, speed, or anything else that is white and powdery.

“The chief danger in coke,” says the doctor, “is not the coke itself, but the continual search for good stuff, which may kill you. I don’t say pure coke will kill you, but there’s a great possibility. In the meantime, the coke user settles for what he can get, and that’s usually terrible, because if the drug itself isn’t impure, what it’s mixed with is.”

Treatment for cocaine overdose is basic, the doctor says, but delicate. Artificial respiration might help, but when he sees someone go into cocaine shock, he dilutes a small amount of barbiturate in a large amount of water and injects it intravenously, slowly, slowly, watching the victim for signs of recovery, stopping the injection when he sees them. A fatal dose, he says, is approximately 1.2 grams, but severe toxicity has been reported on as little as 20 miligrams; it depends on the individual.

“If you don’t know the drug,” he says, “know the pusher.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Drugs

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