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Freebase: A Treacherous Obsession

The rise of crack cocaine and the fall of addicts destroyed by the drug

Freebase: A Treacherous Obsession

Drug Paraphernalia

Southern Illinois University/Getty

It was your typical recording-studio engineer’s cottage in Laurel Canyon, Emphatically shaded from the street by greenery. Plenty of room and light and hanging plants inside.

“Okay, let’s go,” said the dealer.

“Hey,” said the engineer, “this stuff’s still wet.”

“Fuck that,” said the dealer’s lady friend, an alarmingly skinny blond with dark circles under her eyes. “I’ve smoked it dripping wet on a cigarette.” She fired up a blowtorch and handed it to the dealer, who played the flame over the pipe’s multiple bowls so that she could take the first hit. “Oh boy-y-y,” she enthused, her voice slightly higher than normal, as if somebody were messing with the speed of her turntable. She lay down immediately; she claimed to feel the hit more that way. In a few seconds she was back up for another turn on the pipe.

The three kept it up — mixing cocaine with chemicals and vaporizing the crystals in that strange pipe — until ten the next morning. The evening ended on a slightly unpleasant note. All of them had a disagreeable feeling that the house was being watched, possibly that someone was even in the room with them. And they ran out of coke long before they expected.

Free base is the major new drug phenomenon. From being something of a rarity two years ago, it has grown to the point where a leading expert on recreational cocaine use estimates that one out of every ten coke users now uses free base to the exclusion of all other drugs. That could mean a million people.

In appearance, free base is a plain white powder, not as sparkly as street cocaine and, of course, nowhere near as glittery as pharmaceutical coke. It’s not bitter on the tongue, and if you were to snort it, you wouldn’t feel a thing. If you smoked it, though, you’d feel something — and fast. The high has been described by users as “a blast like smack” and “akin to a mild orgasm: when you pull the smoke into your lungs, you get a warm rush and your whole body tingles.” Users say that having previously snorted cocaine does not prepare you for the powerful rush, which is virtually the same high you’d get from shooting cocaine with a needle.

One producer of films for television, who has tried free base but no longer uses it, said: “It’s like snorting, but about ten times as intense and one-quarter as long-lasting. The desire to do it again is immediate and to the exclusion of all else. What’s worse is that people don’t realize they’re getting that way.”

Cocaine itself is a rich man’s high, and free-base users, who can go through several hundred dollars’ worth of the crystals in an hour, seem to fall into two categories (not counting those who get a free hit at a party): dealers who are supporting a habit, and what a Chicago dope paraphernalia expert describes as “lawyers and big disposable-income professionals who did acid twelve years ago but don’t even smoke pot now.” It’s the top-of-the-line model of the Cadillac of drugs.

In Los Angeles, where it seems to have made the strongest inroads, it’s become very popular in the music industry. In fact, rumors of superstar performers and executives who have become “baseballers,” as free-base users are known, are rampant in the Hollywood hills. Just east of Sunset Strip, where billboards proclaim the music industry’s latest offerings, there now is a shop called Lady Snow’s Smoke Menagerie, with a collection of free-base paraphernalia exhibited in its neat, mirrored front window. Half a dozen free-base kits are on display in a case inside the store, along with a do-it-yourself free-base pamphlet and some high-priced equipment for testing cocaine quality.

Partly because it produces a more exhilarating rush than snorting cocaine, free base seems to be a lot more dangerous. It has always scared people, even those who introduced it in this country. Doctor Ron Siegel, of the department of psychiatry at UCLA Hospital, says he first heard about free base in 1974 from people returning from South America (it has been smoked in Colombia for at least fifty years). “At the time,” he says, “they were all keeping quiet about it. They seemed to express a fear of it. One came in and told me about it in exchange for a medical checkup. He was okay.”

The fear is apparently not groundless. There is sober medical opinion that free base poses potential dangers of the most stereotyped drug-menace sort: psychological addiction, psychosis and death.

Already, medical clinics are reporting a number of free-base-related calls, mostly from people who complain of disturbing, paranoid feelings, but sometimes from near overdoses. There was one man admitted to a hospital who exhibited Cheyne-Stokes respiration, the last stage of cocaine overdose before respiratory collapse and death. He did not die, however.

Because of the cost, free base is apparently not a big problem on the street level. “Most people don’t have the money to heavily abuse cocaine or free base,” says Darryl Inaba of the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic Drug Detox Project in San Francisco. “Your liver can detoxify 500 milligrams in forty-five minutes, so you have to take it frequently to maintain the high, since cocaine is a downer as well as an upper. Around here, cocaine sells for $100 to $150 a gram, and the usual purity is, maybe, thirty percent, so you could spend $200 to $300 an hour. I’ve seen guys go to a football game and smoke two or three grams during the course of the game.”

The Haight-Ashbury clinic sees indigent cocaine and free-base patients, in roughly equal numbers, at the rate of about two a week. Ron Siegel, however, is seeing two or three people a day. He describes them as “mostly wealthy, and most of them completely out of control with their [free-base] smoking. They come in from the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, West L.A., even Orange County and San Diego. They identify themselves as businessmen, and they do drive up in very fancy machines. They say they find free base ‘efficient’ for their work. Talking to them, I conclude it may not be so efficient.”

Cocaine, in chemical terms, is cocaine hydrochloride. It’s technically a salt, the product of an acid (hydrochloric acid) and a base (cocaine alkaloid). Free base is the alkaloid itself, and it’s many times easier to vaporize than is cocaine hydrochloride — which is why it can be smoked. It can be sprinkled in an ordinary cigarette or, cocaine users being the most paraphernaliaminded of dopers, smoked in special pipes. Since free base doesn’t burn, someone must play a flame against the bowl of the pipe to vaporize it. As the drug is heated to the point of volatilizing, it tends to melt and drip through the screen. Most free-base pipes have from three to five layers of wire-mesh screen in the bowl, which makes it possible to keep the free base hot on one level after another so that all of the drug will be vaporized.

Free base is rarely sold. It’s usually extracted from street coke just before using. There are dozens of kits out now (average price twelve dollars), and at least one book. The chemistry is elemental: to break down a salt, add to it a base with a higher pH than that in the compound.

As the process is usually carried out, cocaine is treated in a base such as ammonium or sodium carbonate. To that is added an equal quantity of a solvent, such as petroleum ether, then it is shaken up. The liquid separates into two layers, the lower one containing ammonium or sodium carbonate and the upper consisting of free base, and various adulterants from the street coke, dissolved in the ether. When the solvent evaporates, crystals of base are left. There is an even simpler method that involves dissolving street coke in a solution of water and baking soda, and letting the solution dry out (boiling it drives off much of the base, since its boiling point is 187 degrees).

Cocaine hydrochloride taken intranasally requires about three minutes to dissolve in mucus, pass through the skin and other tissues, and enter the bloodstream. Free base enters the bloodstream in the lungs, and the high is almost instantaneous, although the rush lasts only a few seconds. After the rush, the user is still speeded up, as if he’d snorted coke. The rush is the essence of the high, though, and users tend to hit themselves over and over, even more than do people who snort coke.

Siegel has experimented with free base on monkeys. They seemed to like it — in fact, it is the only substance that monkeys will voluntarily smoke without being given a reward such as food or water. Two of three monkeys in his test regulated their usage of free base to levels comparable on a weight basis with humans who snort cocaine hydrochloride. The third, however, smoked all the free base he could get.

That, to Siegel, is the problem: “In social use of cocaine,” he says, “most people can titrate [regulate] their use to a manageable level. Free base breaks this down because of the intensity of the pleasure reinforcement. It’s equivalent to intravenous use of cocaine, without the inconvenience and stigma of needles.

“Free-base users develop the kind of habit that causes disruptions in their lives — in work or school performance, in their social lives. It’s almost the classic drug addiction. They become totally preoccupied with drug seeking and drug taking to the exclusion of everything else, even sex. The sex life of users goes way down. I’ve found five percent situational impotency.”

Users agree. “You get a compulsion to get high,” says an L.A. woman. “You really love the rush. I know people who have lost everything they owned; they sold everything to buy more coke to make more base.” Siegel says he has seen this happen even to people with sound business sense and experience managing money.

Ron Siegel is a defender of recreational cocaine use who has testified at “virtually every constitutional challenge” of the cocaine laws. He is also a recognized academic expert on the subject, and has written for federal-agency publications. Until last year, he says, he had always written and testified that cocaine does not lead to psychosis in the way that amphetamines do. He has had to concede that free base can.

Heavy cocaine users report a sense that things are crawling on or under their skin — the so-called “cocaine bugs” phenomenon. “But these are pseudohallucinations,” says Siegel. “The patients always say it’s as if there were bugs under their skin. They don’t act on a belief that there actually are.”

Free base, on the other hand, can stimulate frighteningly real hallucinations. One man in a group of cocaine users Siegel has studied for five years went through four and a quarter ounces of free base in three days. He became convinced he could see “black antibodies” in his muscle tissue forcing dangerous white worms out of his skin. He examined the antibodies and worms with a thirty-power microscope and, with a needle and tweezers, began removing the “worms” from his flesh and put them in vials for documentation. He brought Siegel ten vials of “worms.” There was nothing in the vials but dried human tissue. This was a genuine paranoid hallucination, and the man’s girlfriend, who had only smoked three-quarters of an ounce of free base over the same period, was seeing the worms, too.

Siegel confesses to being frightened by the rapid spread of free-base smoking, which in his view has been publicized not by word-of-mouth but by ads for free-base kits in national magazines, such as High Times (which now refuses free-base ads). A particular problem is that some people are getting into free base without ever having tried cocaine. “Intranasal use is nothing to them,” he explains. “They crave getting off. The initial use of free base is so ecstatic it’s like the initial LSD experience or the first love you keep trying to recapture.

“I expect to see full-fledgéd psychosis,” concludes Siegel, “such as we haven’t seen with cocaine, and I expect to see a lot of [fatal] overdoses due to smoking free base. We are seeing a safe, recreational drug go up in smoke.”

And a former free-base user adds, “People who normally have self-control will find themselves barely able to wait for the pipe to return. One rather shy woman I know got so wrapped up in it that when a close friend was offered a hit, she got hysterical and screamed, ‘It’s my turn!’ Most people I know have seen how frightening it is, and how frightening they become. And they’ve stopped.”

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