Across a kitchen table near Dupont Circle, a table with a small pile of white powder on it, a friend and I are arguing about the death of Len Bias. "Look," says my friend in tones of sweet reason, "if I did these three lines here, I would not die. I would not. You know it. I know hundreds of people who do an occasional line of coke at a party, and not one of them has ever died. So how can this man, this athlete, in Olympic shape . . ." My friend shakes his head. "He's supposed to have been freebasing it; that's totally different."
Actually, the white stuff on the table is not cocaine. It's laundry detergent, spilled out earlier to settle a debate over how many "lines" you can cut from a gram. Other than this detail, though, we neatly fit the stereotypical profile of one brand of cocaine user: young, urban, fairly privileged, with disposable income. In the aftermath of the Len Bias tragedy, one hotly contested question has been how much, if at all, this kind of public drama can be expected to deter other young users. Unfortunately, my friend's reaction is typical in this as well.
It's not that Bias's death hasn't scared this particular group of users -- those who do it at parties, "casually," they would say, though more and more research is showing that there is no truly "casual" use of this drug. It's just that it hasn't scared them quite enough. And the complex reactions among even the most articulate and self-aware of them suggest the difficulty that political figures, doctors and university officials are going to face as they try to end social tolerance of cocaine and dry up kids' demand for it.
The media may think Len Bias proved cocaine to be a killer. But friends, in recent conversations, are quick to offer reasons why Len Bias's experience doesn't apply to them -- often without realizing just what they're saying. Not a few have seen coke's ravages at closer range than this, when college friends or acquaintances got seriously hooked -- and they admit that such episodes didn't deter them either.
Casual cocaine users notoriously hate and fear heroin addicts, whose needles and needs conjure up the underside of their own "clean" coke use. Similarly, when asked about Bias, they emphasize the difference between sniffing and freebasing (smoking a purified form of the powder) -- even though, contrary to what seems to be the general assumption, there is no medical consensus that the latter is what Bias was doing.
Comparisons with "casual" versus "abusive" drinking are common. "It's like the difference between having a beer and guzzling a fifth of Jack Daniels," says my kitchen friend, an artist. A young journalist adds, "With freebasing you're talking about a much more complicated, powerful kind of a drug, more than your average overeducated user wants to deal with. I'd never try it that way."
Other friends have found other ways to see Bias's experience as somehow distanced from theirs. A bureaucrat in his twenties says the death really did scare him -- "Before, I had no idea that you could just keel over like that." But when asked how it will affect his cocaine use, he answers, "I wouldn't be the first to try a new batch. I'll think more carefully about my connection. We might all be dipping into the same local supply."
He was freebasing, he had a bad batch, he had "some bizarre condition they haven't found yet"; somehow, never mind how exactly, what happened to Lenny Bias was different. The distancing becomes anxious and spills into gallows humor when the subsequent death of football player Don Rogers is taken into account: "The joke here," says a journalist, with some embarrassment, "is, 'Whatever you do, just don't play sports.' "
The need to reach these previously ignored "casual" users is becoming urgent, because research now shows that cocaine when sniffed is a drug with a "long honeymoon" -- that is, it tends to drag a person suddenly over the line into addiction after a number of years of seemingly controlled use. The evidence for this "long honeymoon" is grisly: records from emergency rooms and morgues show a rise in cocaine-related injury and death, even while the proportion of people who say they've tried the drug is holding steady. In other words, after 10 years, the clock is now running out on more and more of them.
*The honeymoon factor makes it doubly difficult to frighten the young. In high school, college and just after, despite an occasional friend or acquaintance who has fallen into addiction, most people are still honeymooning -- seeming to offer living counter-examples to grown-ups' pronouncements of doom, and fueling a what-does-Nancy-Reagan-know-about-it scorn. Anyone who grew up after the presence of drugs became something to take for granted -- say, anyone who started high school after 1965 -- is unlikely to be shocked today by the mere fact that a substance is illegal, or that it's mind-altering. And coke still benefits from its glamorous publicity in the late 1970s, when media organs from Newsweek to Psychology Today clamored that it was non-degenerative, nonaddictive, clean -- you didn't have to smoke it or shoot it into your veins -- and, in fact, could be used "responsibly" or "irresponsibly" just like alcohol.
Staffers on the two-month-old hot line (800-662-HELP) run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse agree with those who've been through it that an external event is unlikely to provide enough shock. Even the experience of watching someone else bottom out on cocaine doesn't often do it.
What, then? A New York paralegal who pulled himself up short halfway through college says the decision was "really a personal crisis, a question of who I was and where I was going to go with my life." Richard Smart, a former government consulting hotshot who lost his career to cocaine addiction and then wrote a gripping memoir called "The Snow Papers," writes that the addict must be just about to hit bottom and yet have something still to live for, in his case a wife and son: "He must know that he has something cherished still to lose" but also "know to a moral certainty that, without recovery, he will lose them."
Such testimony suggests that the best strategy for would-be reformers is to focus public education efforts on those who have never used coke even casually -- who have never experienced the sense of luck, of omnipotence, of being above the rules, which is said to be the drug's greatest high. Cocaine's hold on the privileged may be compounded by the fact that, like a life of elite schools and good opportunities, it contributes to the sense of confidence in one's own luck. That feeling of safety is the subject of the Tony Auth cartoon on this page, which appeared just after Bias's death -- a city street crowded with yuppies, all thinking, "Boy, am I lucky!"
Strange to say, it's an upbeat drawing, one that implies such panicked realizations can last. But luck is a habit of mind, and a highly addictive one at that. Smokers, jaywalkers and non-seat-belt-users will all tell you that if you've always managed to be lucky so far, it's hard to break the habit because of something that happened to somebody else.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.