More than half of the people who live here, black and white, rich and poor, get high one way or another: alcohol, marijuana, valium, cocaine, heroin. Except for heroin, few people really get upset that any of this is being used. Among the younger crowd, below 40, there is a general acceptance of drug use and drug abuse as long as you don't smell of it, fall asleep at work, kill somebody or flip out. The unspoken standard on drugs is "it is a matter of life style."
Heroin use in the city has increased dramatically in the last year. The frenzied, desperate activity in some poor parts of town -- addicts looking to make that contact -- is apparent on the streets. It is there to be seen, too, in the higher rate of robberies and shoplifting on police records. Where the rising abuse of heroin is hidden is behind the metal lockers in the city morgue. In 1978 there were seven heroin overdose deaths. With over two months left in this year, there have already been 26 heroin overdose deaths.
But while the recent jump in heroin use has sparked concern, Valium is now by far the drug most likely to be next to the aspirin on the bathroom shelf or buried in a handbag. It is the most severely abused drug in Washington, according to area hospitals. While 204 persons were rushed to emergency rooms with ills related to heroin in 1978, there were 761 persons taken into emergency rooms sick from Valium.
They're "like cuts," one suburban hospital's administrator said.
Still, Valium and heroin are only minor parts of the area drug scene. Take alcohol. Washington has the highest number of alcoholics for its population and the highest amount of alcohol consumed per person of any city in the nation, according to the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
Then there are marijuana and PCP. Most teen-agers here and people below the age of 25 have smoked marijuana, and about a quarter of them smoke it at least once a week, according to drug counselors. You can find children smoking it on the steps of city elementary schools.
Policemen in the city walk by you if you are smoking a joint. The unspoken law is that it is legal by popular demand. Smoking marijuana with PCP, the animal tranquilizer, sprayed on it is also popular with the teen-age set. In 1978 PCP ranked only below Valium as the drug that forced people here to emergency rooms.
To complete the picture, cocaine must be considered. Few figures are available on how many people use it. But law officials say it is a boom business, as reflected in the amount of cocaine confiscated in raids, such as the recent arrests of Georgetown street vendors who were allegedly selling it.
It is as if we were all kids in an alley with our own secret society codes. It's all right to sneak a smoke back here with us, but your breath had better be fresh and your head on straight when you go back out. It is one huge farce in which we all keep it together, nine-to-five, in public. After the drive home, it is take off the mask and get high.
Most of this drug abuse problem won't ever be dealt with. It is too powerful a negative comment about the life most of us live. And real men, they say, have a right to few drinks after bearing up to the work day. The teen-agers who loaf around Georgetown with backpacks -- some runaways -- say they have a right to get high after dealing with crazy schools and parents. The poor people say they've got to get high after dealing with landlords and the city bureaucracy. The bureaucrats get high after dealing with their anonymous paper work. The young interns, clerks and aides have to get high, they say, to deal with their power-lust Washington ambitions. And too many wives lead lonely lives in this town.
The problem is not with some criminal population that can be isolated but with friends and relatives, with us. The problem is with a free and easy attitude toward drugs that is seeping down to younger and younger children. To say, "don't do drugs because drugs are bad for you," sounds like boorish hypocrisy these days. Too many people do drugs. To change the free and easy attitude toward drugs is the problem. Too many people prefer not to think of drug use as a problem, as long as they can use drugs without fouling up their own lives. That is selfish attitude. It is ignores children, forgets about people with weak wills and is deaf, mute and blind where the idea of community -- responsibility to one another -- is concerned.