Empty Rituals in the War on Drugs

By Hal Crowther

Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 14-15

Two months dead and Len Bias is still making headlines. When cocaine claims a victim who's young and famous and a gifted athlete, it has to be someone else's fault. Find the dealer--some other black kid on a Washington street corner who might have made twenty sales that same night, and who still may not know that he had the honor of selling the coke that killed one of the most amazing atheletes I've ever seen. Shake down all his friends, bring charges agains the kid who rolled up the dollar bill, or the one who owned the little spoon that carried the fatal spoonful. Fire his coach, Lefty Driesell, whose greatest fault is that he always tries to protect his players when he'd be better off protecting himself. Turn over the whole Maryland athletic department, test a lot of urine, find some players who can read.

That's the way we do it here. They tried to pin first degree murder on the poor woman who assisted in the messy departure of John Belushi, a notorious glutton for drugs of any description. Because he was a celebrity, I suppose, and her prosecution satisfied some kind of national hunger for a scapegoat. Everyone who knew Belushi knows that it would have taken a women's volleyball team to keep him away from the drug, once it was in the same room with him.

It's a waste of police work, an empty ritual like most of the speeches that are mumbled over the dead. Bias and Don Rogers, like Belushi and all the uncelebrated cadavers before them, took the drugs because they wanted it, because they thought they needed it. Putting the blame on their suppliers is just as dishonest as putting the heat on Mexico, and on Panama and Columbia. It's the United States that's the world's great cocaine consumer of the world, a market so rich that the economies of several countries depend on our insatiable habit. We are the John Belushi of nations. We should have Belushi and John Delorean on our stamps and coins.

While we threaten Mexico for its modest exports, our domestic industry is in a growth spiral so colossal that thugs in Miami will be purchasing Fortune 500 companies before the year 2000. With cash. In the last two years agents have seized fifty major cocaine laboratories in this country, some with a weekly capacity of one thousand pounds of cocaine. The largest, in upstate New York, was discovered by accident when a neighboring building caught fire. The cocaine hotline in a New Jersey hospital gets fourteen hundred calls every day. The Coast Guard in North Carolina admits that it's losing the battle against cocaine smugglers. Monster profits have inspired unprecedented daring and ingenuity among smugglers. Agents have found packets of cocaine under the tongues of fish. A small boat can earn its owner $25,000 on one major smuggling mission; a drop site for a major shipment is worth $100,000.

In New York City, dealing cocaine has become almost legal--only one of three people arrested on felony drug charges is ever indicted, far less jailed--simply because there are so many cases that the courts can't begin to deal with them. New York's elite narcotics task force, Operation Pressure Point, has made eighteen thousand arrests since 1984, fifty-eight hundred of them felony arrests. Fewer than twelve hundred cases have resulted in indictments, and only 476 dealers were sentenced to as much as a year in jail. Judges, with rapes and murders backed up (last year they got through half of one percent of their cases), tend to snarl at presecutors who waste their time with cocaine.

"A lot of judges feel narcotics cases are second-rate cases," complains the police inspector who runs Pressure Point. "They don't care for low-level cocaine sales. At the plea-bargaining stages, they ask "Why did you bring me this garbage?"

Like bootleg liquor during prohibition, cocaine in America is distributed on such a scale that law enforcement is becoming a joke. It takes a lot of nerve to blame Mexico. If you were a Latin American, with an attitude toward the United States that might range


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anywhere from loathing to ambivalence, could you resist the opportunity? They'll never stop us with money or rifles, but they can help us burn ourselves up from the inside out. As much as anything else, I think they're motivated by morbid curiosity about our capacity for this terrible stuff. How deep is the American nostril? And it's not as if the United States has ever neglected a foreign market on moral consideration. When our scientists decided that cigarettes were hopelessly poisonous, our tobacco companies raced to exploit the foreign markets before word got around. The baby formula scandal, an American company's attempt to eliminate breastfeeding in the Third World, is still one of the classic stories of greed and cynicism. In most years, the United States leads the world in the sale of guns and armaments, which are somewhat more controversial than cocaine. In countries where we have special interests, we give the guns away.

Any Latin who sells drugs to Americans can call himself a patriot. Cocaine is the "now" profession in the Western Hemisphere, for any youngster with the courage to pursue it. Maybe it's only timidity that keeps me from emulating John Delorean myself. To get rich, and at the same time to contribute to the self-destruction of affluent fools? It would be hard to imagine a more satisfying career. Show me the philosophy that makes it more objectionable than selling chocolate to the obese, or selling Wild Irish Rose to wings.

It's time Americans quit pointing fingers and owned up to their habit, as individuals and as a society. Alcoholics don't cure themselves by blowing up distilleries and bashing bartenders. Why should we pay the police to protect us from ourselves? When a kid dies on cocaine, the correct question isn't "Where did he get it?", it's "Why did he want it?"

Any progess has to start there. Cocaine has been around a long time. When I tried to trace the authorship of the cocaine song that Mike Cross sings ("Cocaine...runnin' round my brain...") the trail led way back beyond Leadbelly and the Rev. Gary Davis, into dim unrecorded music history. The song is in the public domain. Why is this disreputable old standby the glamor drug of the Age of Reagan? Overpriced, addictive, lethal, brief in its promise and long in its revenge.

It has something to do with risk, with gambling. A rational human being, faced with the uncertainty of existence, will try to improve the odds. Americans, with an increasing level of obsession, will try to beat the odds. Supporters of North Carolina's Shearon Harris nuclear plant wrote an incredible number of letters comparing the odds against a nuclear accident to the odds against death by snakebite, or yellow fever. You can't convince me that those letters weren't written by morons, but I can see that they were distinctly American morons. When the novelist A. G. Mojtabai visited Amarillo, Texas, which sits on top of all the nuclear weapons assembled in the United States, she found the locals more than happy with their odds. More alarmingly, she found that the city was home to most of the fundamentalist "Rapture" sects, which believe that Armageddon is O.K. because the Lord is going to snatch them up just before the bombs go off. Figure the odds those guys are playing.

When reporters asked a bunch of street kids if the death of Len Bias had changed their attitude toward cocaine, most of them said "No." It was as if the death lottery was over, Bias had lost, and their odds were just as good, if not better, for the next one. "I think of Len Bias as a person who just had bad luck," said one kid in Brooklyn.

The spiritual capital of the United States is Las Vegas, and Las Vegas is the spiritual armpit of the world. Gambling is a wide streak in the national character that's being exploited as it was never exploited before. The gambler's fatalism and machismo make a potent speedball. It's the age of the quick fix, elation without foundation, a bloated stock market where crazy gamblers thrive, windfall profits at the expense of everybody's future. Cocaine is its drug. Sure things and safe drugs are for old maids. Fly now, pay later. And don't be afraid. The odds may be narrowing, but the odds are still on your side.

Hal Crowther writes for the Spectator of Raleigh, N.C., from which this article is adapted.