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Jewish World Review August 27, 1999 /15 Elul, 5759

Suzanne Fields

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No kick from cocaine -- THE COCAINE DEBATE swirling around George W. -- did he or didn't he? If so, when? Should we insist on knowing? All of this is looking through a telescope from the wrong end.

What's interesting about cocaine is not that it's against the law, though that's important, but why it's against the law, what it can do to the person who smokes it, snorts it or shoots it. Cocaine kills. The loud, clear message of cocaine is that it has a potent and deleterious effect on the mind, body and behavior of an addict. But it takes time.

In an exhibition on the history of drugs in the United States, at the Drug Enforcement Administration offices near the Pentagon, a video illustrates the effects of cocaine addiction on a once-beautiful model. In the opening footage we see her as she looked in her early photographs, lustrous long hair, bright eyes and porcelain skin. Then she takes off her wig, exposing a head with no hair; she rubs off her makeup, revealing a rough and callow skin, and finally takes out her false teeth.

It's clear that George W. has accomplished a lot since he turned away from alcohol at the age of 40, and hasn't used cocaine, if he ever did, for 25 years. He has matured. Nothing about his teetotalling suggests an earlier debilitation of drugs.

But since the question of whether he ever used cocaine has been blown out of proportion by a voracious press, and the candidate's clumsy offerings of dribs and drabs to questions he said he wouldn't entertain, only he can put the summer squall of controversy to rest with a homily. He could speak to youngsters about his experience -- or lack of it.

Most young people "do coke," or any drug for that matter, because of peer pressure. It's exceedingly hard for a young man to single himself out by not doing what others do. (You can't fake not inhaling coke.) If George W. never tried it he could explain how he's proud of that decision, because coke was especially tempting as socially acceptable in his peer group in the '70s. If he did experiment, he could explain what he learned from the experiment.

In the 1970s cocaine was a status symbol for aspiring middle-class sophisticates. It was described as a drug without a downside. The Grateful Dead wore spoons around their necks and peddlers worked the crowds selling paraphernalia to their fans.

In 1971, Newsweek magazine quoted the deputy director of Chicago's Bureau of Narcotics: "You get a good high with coke and you don't get hooked." Rolling Stone magazine called it "America's star-spangled powder."

In 1974 the New York Times Magazine ran an article headlined "Cocaine: The Champagne of Drugs," and featured three users on the front page: Sigmund Freud, Sir Arthur Colan Doyle and Pope Leo XIII. Cocaine as a chic, harmless drug for celebrities was praised in People magazine, which identified Waylon Jennings and Jack Nicholson as icons of the "70s coke generation." The National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded that cocaine was not a problem drug with serious personal or social consequences when snorted recreationally.

Contemporary acceptance is instructive. It vividly shows the confusion in the popular culture of the dangers of cocaine, dramatically revealing the scientific community, which regards itself as immune to emotion and popular opinion, as co-opted by the pop culture. Medical "experts" and public health officials ignored a century of documentation of the ravages of the drug.

As early as 1910 President William Howard Taft identified cocaine as "more appalling in its effects than any other habit-forming drug in the United States," and urged Congress to restrict its availability. "The original 'war' on drugs in the early years of this century was so successful that we have no collective memory of that era," writes Jill Jonnes, in "Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: America's Romance With Illegal Drugs."

When the middle-class cokenoses suffered in the shadows of the dark side of cocaine, glamour died. The drug cartels and their pushers needed another source of customers. They discovered crack cocaine, a cheaper and more deadly drug, and they made the marketing decision to seek customers in the inner city, creating an addiction for a drug that worked much faster than cocaine. Things did not go better with crack.

Let George W. and the pundits put that in their pipes and smoke it.


08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate