So cocaine is just another recreational drug, all right for snorting on social occasions, no riskier than drinking scotch or smoking cigarettes. It's no big thing--as common at Hollywood and New York parties as munching smoked almonds and pumpernickel sticks, common enough to be used by an estimated 40 to 75 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association. And since all these people have the dough to afford it, it's nobody's business but their own, right?
The popular wisdom is that cocaine use is exclusive and "indoor," without the distasteful images of heroin--the dirty alleys and scary "shooting galleries." Hurray, high-living America. You've got a new "drug of choice."
Tell that to the folks who're mourning John Belushi, the talented comedian who died this week from an overdose of heroin laced with cocaine. He was 33.
Tell it to comedian Richard Pryor. He became a living torch in 1980 when ether he was mixing with cocaine--called "free base" in "recreational" circles--exploded in his face.
Tell it to comedian George Carlin, and let him tell you what he told Playboy magazine about his own cocaine use, which started as something recreational and bloomed into a full-fledged "incredible abuse":
"I never knew or cared about the money he spent . Of course, it was a lot. A fortune. But when I hear people tell exactly how much they spend on coke, I think . . . they care more about the money than the drug . . . In terms of coke, the only money I ever thought about was that dollar bill I had stuck up my nose."
But those are television and film stars, you say; their life style has always been different from ours. The hype about cocaine has reached close to home--not just at parties in Georgetown and McLean, but east of the Potomac River, east of Rock Creek Park, where some of the gullible try to ape the high-living "trend-setters."
A Washington mother of two I talked with at Second Genesis, a drug rehabilitation center says, "I was giving my sister a birthday party. I went in the kitchen and I saw this man and woman. I didn't really know them--they were snorting and told me to try it, it's fun. So I tried it and they were right--the music started sounding better. I felt a numbness, a cool tingling feeling all over." She started snorting regularly, selling drugs to support her habit. She was impressed with the company she kept.
"We used to go out partyin'. We used to meet doctors and lawyers who snorted coke. Another guy was a teacher. He had a nice apartment but after about a year of snorting coke, he didn't have anything--he couldn't work anymore."
Don't tell law enforcement officials in Florida about cocaine. They already know. Cocaine has put three South Florida cities--Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach--among the FBI's list of the 10 most crime-ridden cities. Cocaine has helped earn Miami a dubious distinction as the murder capital of the nation.
Dade County officials can tell you about cocaine. Seventy percent of all marijuana and cocaine imported into the U.S. passes through south Florida. More than 2,350 pounds of cocaine worth $5.8 billion were seized there last year. About nine times that amount is estimated to get through the net.
Down there, the struggle for cocaine profits has pushed terrified residents indoors, seeking protection from the random danger created by gun-slinging drug dealers.
But then cocaine is business--big business, both here and abroad. The Bolivian economy, for instance, virtually runs on cocadollars, with what one diplomat has called a "narcokleptocracy" of military, government and drug traffickers taking in a fortune from the sale of cocaine and other contraband.
The answer will not come from other countries, but from this one, which must come up with a realistic antinarcotics policy that includes subsidizing a new crop to replace the economic need for coca in South America. It needs a public education policy because there are still so many mistaken beliefs about cocaine, still so much ignorance about its long-term effects.
The best policy, of course, would be to strike at the cause of this illness and not the symptom, to get rid of the conditions that lead to cocaine and other kinds of drug and alcohol abuse. But nobody wants to talk about that. It's out of style. It's not cost-effective. And besides, cocaine is such good business.